Classical review: from Sarah Newton to Matisse

At least once per year, North London club DJ Stanley Whitney slips out into the chilly night to tackle one of the most joyous and surprising moments in modern dance. Years ago, he performed…

Classical review: from Sarah Newton to Matisse

At least once per year, North London club DJ Stanley Whitney slips out into the chilly night to tackle one of the most joyous and surprising moments in modern dance. Years ago, he performed A Little but Not Quite Everything, a complete break with conventional revue routines. With a tag line proclaiming “This is me. I am very different”, it was about growing up, being a young gay man. It was a riot, and presumably hundreds of revellers danced themselves silly. This year, Whitney has teamed up with New York choreographer Laurie Anderson, who styles herself as a multimedia innovator.

The result is a special event called Stanley Whitney Dances With Matisse. You may not have heard of Matisse, whose work continues to inspire younger artists. One of his most famous paintings, Venus in Algiers, was made in the years around the time Stanley Whitney was coming of age. The dancers pirouette around the stage, walking upright. A ghoulish atmosphere drifts over the stage – so it must be 1935. Enter Nellie Flanagan (Steven Insley), who, among other things, is a barber and, before that, she was a vaudeville performer who, in a job interview that grounds us in time, tells them all how Matisse gave him nightmares. She lives, she tells us, in an isolated mansion with her son, whom the sisters Cat and Petronella (Indika Defaria and Debora Phillips) would love to adopt, but who is locked in the police lock-up. With this little foreshadowing, we are on the top floor of a beautiful house, looking down on the world that escaped from their hands. It is a dreamy prelude, which builds into a bracingly sexy and provocative performance.

Dancers of the new generation … Natasha Ludick and Andrew Dyke of New York company Showcasing. Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer

Anderson is the most intensely intellectual of dance choreographers. Newton describes her two-way energy with an “insanely arching curve”, as she creates the four dancers in Dreams (Natasha Ludick, Andrew Dyke, Baylee Wiggett and Federico Nasri). Anderson imagines what it might feel like to do ballet and jazz in the same set of lifts and turns, and Newton captures the carnal, instinctive impulses and aggressive traits that come from the shift. As Anderson strides from one limb to the next, dreaming of surrender and courage, we can imagine the deepest well of truth in her work.

Even better is System of a Dancer, from 1980, when Anderson recreates the profound pleasure of watching traditional ballet and jazz dancers performing a Le Corsaire theme by Gene Kelly and Yvonne Rainer. She shows how the form itself, relying on ornament and detail, becomes art. We see how the dancers try to stay on point when they are up against a barrier, or throw their hands out to prove they are the one in charge. But Anderson reinvents the narrative too, looking closely at this simple, simple ballerina.

As Whitney ends his tribute to the discipline and discipline of dance, Nina Jablonski’s accompaniment is awe-inspiring. It has a gentle pulsing sound – a pleasingly European sounding antidote to the throaty screams of Whitney’s zap drums – and her violin spins like a jewel over the floorboards. This is still the grandest “mime” of them all.

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