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Bern Ballet - Clara/Howl

Published Thursday 26 May 2011 at 14:59 by Neil Norman

The two works from the small but enterprising Swiss dance company illustrate director Cathy Marston’s mission - to forge a link between contemporary dance and dramatic narrative.

A scene from Clara at the Linbury Studio, London

A scene from Clara at the Linbury Studio, London Photo: Tristram Kenton

Choreographed by Marston herself, Clara is based on the three-way relationship between the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, and their friend, Johannes Brahms. Against an austere backdrop of grey carpets and a grand piano, Marston’s work unfolds with a calculated vigour and scowling passion that is both tantalising and alienating. Her arrangements are clear and concise, the three protagonists separated from the ensemble of seven who act as a kind of chorus to the push-me-pull-you menage a trois. Marston’s choreographic language is virile and flexible, intimate and surprising, with quick, snatching moves followed by languorous caresses. The pas de deux between Hui-Chen Tsai’s Clara and Erick Guillard’s Robert oozes with desperate need and long-term intimacy that shadows MacMillan’s portrayals of sexual abandon. Marston’s dancers stroke and touch each other throughout and they act as well as they dance. The sequence with the ensemble lying in a row like recalcitrant piano keys while Schumann tries to control them is a welcome intrusion of humour - the gradual rolling and unrolling of carpets a strangely moving metaphor for the ebb and flow of life. A powerful work that conveys the essence of its subject matter with clarity and unwavering conviction.

Andrea Millar’s Howl is less easy to read, being far more impressionistic than Clara. But there is no denying its febrile energy as the 12 dancers, all dressed identically in institutional white uniforms and athletic caps, pounce, leap and wriggle around the stage like a series of controlled explosions. The New York-based Millar has a wicked sense of humour and can parlay fast moving groups into her design with ease. But it becomes tiring to watch after a while and the sense of Cholmondeleys/Feathestonehaughs communal fun with which it opens soon curdles into imagery (piling corpses together, dragging dead bodies around like jackals with carrion) that is closer to the Marat/Sade. It’s a romping, raging visceral piece that makes the most of an eclectic soundtrack (Joanna Newsome, Allen Ginsberg, Black Dice) but stops just short of coherence.

Production information

Linbury Studio, London, May 25-28

Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms (Clara), Orchestra Barzizza, Black Dice, Tim Hecker, Allen Ginsberg, Joanna Newsome (Howl)
Cathy Marston (Clara), Andrea Millar (Howl)
Cathy Marston
Bern Ballet (Switzerland)
Hui-Chen Tsai, Erick Guillard, Denis Puzanov, Franklyn Lee, Stephanie Amurao, Martina Langmann, Izumi Shuto, Marion Zurbach, Ilan Kav, Gary Marshall, Yu-Min Yang
Running time:
1hr 50mins

Production information displayed was believed correct at time of review. Information may change over the run of the show.

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Run sheet

King's Head, Islington London
January 24-February 15 2014