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Body.Dance.Nation.City review at Royal Festival Hall, London – ‘intriguing but overstretched’

Body.Dance.Nation.City at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: A Poiana Body.Dance.Nation.City at the Royal Festival Hall. Photo: A Poiana

A steady breath, accompanied by a sound like the soft churning of saliva in the mouth. To this unpleasant soundtrack, a solo dancer tendus and bourrees, his feet shifting neatly through fifth position. Slowly, the company emerges through a curtain of metal chains to gather around him, their bodies wrapped in flesh-coloured fabric, their faces masked in cloth.

Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten’s work for the Ballet National de Marseille, Body.Dance.Nation.City, takes the corps de ballet (or Le Corps du Ballet as the piece was originally entitled) in a very literal sense. This featureless body of dancers work in tight formation their movement building and subsiding like a breathing organism as they shift through precise patterns and placements, the occasional trio breaking the corps apart.

Initially Body.Dance.Nation.City seems to be a straightforward exploration of its title (the French national anthem is solemnly whistled, the dancers stood in line downstage), but as the work descends into a hallucinatory medley of movement and imagery, it becomes hard to know what to make of it.

As the music morphs from minimalist soundscape to rock concert, the corps’ classical form loosens and their energy erupts. They throw their bodies through space, torsos slightly scooped, arms whirling through fifth position. This attack and aggression is carried into a series of pas de deux en pointe, their normality offset by the bizarre images that surround them – a dancer with a bunch of cigarettes spiked between her fingers, an oversized head parading behind the metal curtains, a corps disguised by white-faced, rosy-cheeked masks.

Artistically it’s intriguing, but over the course of 70 minutes there are points where the attention wavers, with Greco and Scholten’s onslaught of imagery becoming increasingly difficult to absorb. It all feels a little overstretched.

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Technically exciting and entertainingly bizarre, but Greco and Scholten just try too hard