Smoke coming out of the wings, billowing in earth-tone-tinged arabesques; smoke drifting over two sitting figures like a cloud; smoke spilling into the auditorium to a sober, piano-dominated score, blurring the contrast between stage and audience … True to its title, Rachid Ouramdane’s latest contemporary creation, Sfumato, which professes to deal with climate change, took the breath away on Tuesday with a dizzyingly atmospheric first scene – and left this writer wondering why the choreography didn’t work harder to match the special effects.
It can be done, as Ouramdane demonstrates in the second scene. When the smoke dissipates, a woman (Lora Juodkaite) in plain tunic and tights appears, launching herself in a never-ending series of chaînés, fast turns on alternating feet, with imperturbable force. She drifts around the stage in fluctuating circles, her arms slicing through the air with otherworldly abandon. Somewhere along the way, the voiceover makes it clear we are seeing a hurricane, but the dance goes much further, a complex, virtuosic realisation of dark forces at play.
Such moments are rare, however. The production lingers on first-person accounts of lives affected by climate issues, read over the speakers and accompanied by video portraits filmed in China by Aldo Lee. Bits and pieces of text, particularly the introduction penned by Sonia Chiambretto, find poetry in the environmental concerns they evoke, but what’s missing is a choreographic response that would take all this to the next level.
As it is, more often than not, the dance operates on a smaller scale than the concepts. In another visually gorgeous, technically improbable scene, torrential rain comes crashing down on stage for minutes on end; the sight of a pianist playing a dripping wet instrument is something to behold, but the choreography remains shy in its exploration of this apocalyptic vision, with two drenched performers looking a bit like constipated rain dancers. Would-be ensemble scenes are perhaps the most problematic element throughout, with slow-motion walking and deliberately pedestrian dynamics, while the pool of water left behind by Sfumato’s monsoon moment offers rather too many opportunities for Flipper-like splashing about.
Dance nuggets here and there hint at what a tighter, less episodic production could deliver: a dancer suddenly leaving the water behind to tap and sing his way through a disenchanted version of “Singin’ in the Rain”, for instance, or a hip-hop section in which the fluid, swirling choreography launches arcs of water drops in the air. The elements are there – it’s time for Ouramdane to think bigger, in dance terms.