On Wednesday night Sadler’s Wells celebrated the 15th anniversary of its rebuilding and, be it most gratefully noted, its renewed identity as our national Dance House. Tremendous gratitude to its director Alistair Spalding and his colleagues for the achievement and the grand reputation that Lilian Baylis’s new structure of 1931 has won, and the passing thought that today it is, as Baylis intended, a people’s theatre where the lyric arts are made intelligible, popular, exciting. “The Lady”, as she was known to her Vic-Wells audiences, must – in some celestial office where she may still be worrying about costs, and determinedly praying – be very proud.
Wednesday’s performance brought exactly what the Wells splendidly does (in spite of snarky, uncomprehending criticism): bold, new, challenging work. On this occasion it was from Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance troupe. Atomos, hung about with an off-putting programme-note, concerns atoms, bodies and – if I am not completely thrown by the text and the action – the fact that “thinking is also movement”. And what do we see? A stage superlatively lit – and ever-evocative of feeling – by Lucy Carter. We hear an ear-numbing soundtrack of serious tedium made by “A Winged Victory for the Sullen”, whose name is much more fun than their acoustic clangours. And McGregor’s cast busily occupied for 75 minutes (no intermission as reward for good behaviour) doing McGregor-ish things in dismal unitards.
McGregor’s dance manner is coherent, demanding in its muscular feats, surely now owing something to his time with the Royal Ballet: academic forms distorted but still fighting for their lives, and movement fighting eagerly for space with an adjacent outburst of step-making. McGregor is nothing if not ingenious in his adjustments and adaptations of danced action – there are felicities of pattern and repetition, vivid muscular dramas as bodies state and then explore a phrase. But the sum effect is introspective, intellectually costive, magpie dance where anything that glitters must be taken into the movement.
The text of Atomos, shown by Random’s dancers with intensest concentration, is at times vivid, but cannot escape its fatal destiny as a message loud, wordy, in a foreign language.