Defiance in the face of Brexit at Sadlers Wells

Maybe in years to come, people will ask me what I was doing on the night the UK left the EU. I’ll be proud to say that I was at the Sadlers Wells theatre in London, embracing a diverse programme of dance featuring dancers and styles from all around the world.

As the last few hours of the UK’s remaining time in the European Union ticked towards a close, Alastair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells, came out on the stage to acknowledge that the performers we were about to see hailed from many countries all over the world, declaring Sadlers Wells a “global home for dance” where everyone is welcome. “You belong here” were his words, and I think that it is up to the arts community, of which we are all a part, to ensure that continues to be true.

One thing’s for sure, Alastair has outdone himself with this year’s programme. I had the pleasure of attending Sampled two years ago, but this programme was even more refined. Showcasing a perfect array of different styles of dance, this year’s offerings really highlighted the unique. Going beyond simply offering samples of different existing dance styles, i.e. street, ballet, flamenco, etc., this evening showcased really innovative acts that I had never seen before, including circus arts, hip-hop in visual theatre, jump style and technology as choreography. As usual, there was also lots on offer around the theatre, including live dancing, music, film, information and full 75-minute workshops on Saturday as well.

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The first piece, an excerpt of TO DA BONE by French collective LA(HORDE) featured dances from the Hardstyle movement, particularly jumpstyle, which I have never seen before and had me in awe at the utter precision, athleticism and stage presence of this group of self-taught performers. There were two performances by BBC Young Dancers- Max Revell with ‘Unstrung’, a contemporary piece using influences from popping and locking choreographed by Dickson Mbi to create a creative and emotive piece. Shree Savani then performed Devi, a bharatanatyam piece choreographed by Bhagya Lakshmi Thyagarajan which celebrated female power and showcased her immense expressiveness.

I was very excited to watch Company Wayne McGregor perform, as McGregor is one of my favourite choreographers. The company performed an excerpt from Living Archive, a piece which was created in collaboration with Google’s Arts and Culture Lab. The Living Archive is a tool that suggests movement possibilities in response to dancing, and thus collaborates in the creative process. This is such an interesting collaboration between dance and technology, using technology as more than just a helpful tool and actually part of the creative process. It made for a piece (or at least an excerpt!) that used Company Wayne McGregor’s exceptionally able dancers to the height of their potential. They were dynamic, fluid and powerful.

The next two pieces were different excerpts from Machine de Cirque. Featuring four circus artists and a musician on stage, the first excerpt involved a very exciting and impressive juggling routine, and the second some acrobatic feats that really demonstrated the truest definition of trust I have seen. The performers were working to their very limits, in a way that presented real danger, and the trust and love between everyone on the stage was palpable from the audience. I often see very athletic dance pieces critiqued by purists who proclaim that they are “nothing more than circus tricks” (you come across this opinion a lot in ballet!). I want everyone who has ever said that to watch these performers, because circus IS dance, and it was one of the most exciting audience experiences I’ve been a part of.

Machine de Cirque (c) Loup-William Théberge_2
Machine de Cirque- photo by Loup–William Théberge

Going from one end of the mood spectrum to the other, the next piece was an excerpt from BLKDOG, choreographed by Botis Seva and performed by Far From The Norm. This piece uses hip-hop, but in a way you won’t have seen, as well as visual theatre to create an intense and dramatic atmosphere. A lot of the first section featured simple movements used sparingly to maximum effect, and they were performed with a crisp precision that is rare. I tweeted this afterwards and I can’t put it any better so I’ll repeat myself: anyone who thinks that hip-hop isn’t “high art” needs to watch this. BLKDOG was as sophisticated as any contemporary piece I’ve seen on the main stage at the Royal Opera House. I really hope I can watch the full work when it returns to Sadler’s Wells later this year.

FFTN_BLKDOG_2019_7423 Camilla Greenwell
BLKDOG- photo by Camilla Greenwell

The next piece was a tango performance by Ezequiel Lopez and Camila Alegre of Argentina’s Tango Fire company. This type of partner dancing really isn’t usually my thing, but it was difficult to resist getting caught up in the performance quality of these dancers as they built to a climactic finish in three separate pieces. It was dazzling, glamorous and passionate.

The final piece of the evening was Géométrie Variable performing extracts from Labora. This French hip-hop company base their work on creating geometric shapes and interesting lines with one other’s bodies, especially, for example, making complex patterns with each others’ arms. This provides so many creative movement possibilities, and it’s nothing short of entrancing to watch from the audience. One thing I would have loved would be to see this exciting movement vocabulary used to express more of an idea, theme, emotion or narrative. There’s nothing wrong with creating aesthetically driven work, especially when it’s done so well, but I think that this style has even more expressive potential.

Geometrie Variable by Paul Hampartsoumian (2)
Géometrié Variable- photo by Paul Hampartsoumian

Besides the incredible feast of dance provided on-stage, the entire theatre buzzes with dance during Sampled. On the mezzanine, Swing Patrol London’s RatPack provided exciting swing dance entertainment to live music by Palace Avenue Swing Musicians. I actually felt emotional watching these dancers because their joy in the act of dancing was SO palpable. I even took part in the mini Charleston class offered at the end of the performance, which was an absolute blast! It’s truly wonderful seeing audience members coming together and getting stuck in, even if they felt embarrassed or nervous. There were other things on offer too, including dance films and the feedback wall. Here are some of the inspiring messages people wrote about why they love dance:

I also added my own: “dance is a language that we ALL speak”.

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I didn’t attend any of the workshops this year, not being fully fit yet, but some of the offerings looked incredible, including Tango, Swing, Contemporary, Hip Hop Theatre and Old Way Voguing, all with some of the performers from the programme.

Sampled is one of the best celebrations of the diversity of dance and the richness of its culture. The atmosphere during Sampled is hard to describe: when you attend, you’re not just an audience member watching a performance, but an active part of the dance community. It’s an opportunity to experience totally new things, and as a dancer especially that is so enriching. It’s also highly accessible, with tickets flat-priced at £20 plus £5 Proms-style standing tickets (I did that last time around and it is such a cool way to experience a performance, but I don’t recommend it after a full day of classes!).

Being part of this environment on a night that seemed darkly significant in London is something that felt very fitting and in alignment with what the dance community can do going forwards. We need to remain open. We need to celebrate global dance. We need to advocate sharing across styles and across borders. We need to learn from one another. We need to enjoy what makes us unique alongside what unites us, and above all we need to be voices for unity.


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