Swiss choreographer Philippe Saire set the tone for Lonesome Cowboy at curtain’s rise. In midnight-blue, vaguely military, uniforms, five dancers moved through a series of typically male poses. The men flexed their biceps, raised their arms in surrender, crossed those arms over their chests in tight refusal and pulled their elbows towards their stomachs in crushing defeat. But they did all this at the dreamlike pace of t’ai chi.
Like the step-by-step Muybridge photographs of Greco-Roman wrestling that inspired the dance, Lonesome Cowboy approaches an essentially violent subject with cool dispassion. For men’s tendency to threaten, challenge, corral, tease and mangle each other, the choreographer studied the prison gang in Cool Hand Luke and the platoons in Full Metal Jacket, but his tone is less American pistol-packing polemical than Swiss neutral.
Saire offers his dancers’ dodging and feinting, their rolling in each other’s arms across the floor in a rough horizontal waltz, their scuffing up the stage’s black gravel surface in backward lopes, their lifting each other by crotch or nape of neck, without a story. The movement is beautiful. The dancers – all chestnut-haired and of middling height, as if they were brothers – approached the harrowing moves with fearlessness and keen focus. They slid seamlessly between antic violence, erotic tenderness and exhausted collapse. Frozen tableaux emerged from the long bouts of athleticism like sunlight amid a storm.
The transitions from vigour to quiet, which seem inevitable though you don’t anticipate them, account for a good deal of the dance’s pleasure. They would have accounted for more if the score, lurching from ominous drone to simple keyboard melodies to upbeat rock, had not anticipated these shifts in mood. Laurent Junod’s excellent lighting – sometimes levelled at us, sometimes rising eerily out of the floor, as cold as ice or warm like a lit room on a winter night – worked a more subtle register.
With the stage’s boxed-in gravel bringing to mind the futile sand of absurdists Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett, Lonesome Cowboy began again and again as yet another game or challenge rose from the stillness. The compulsion to make and break rules so as to keep existential dread at bay will always be with us, the dance suggests – or with men, anyway.