Tragédie, Sadler’s Wells, London – review

I recall, years ago, a photograph in the newspaper Nice Matin of a gaggle of disconsolate tots identified for the reader as notre bataillon de charme. As the week ended, the Wells presented us with Olivier Dubois’ charm battalion – his nine naked men and nine naked women from the Ballet du Nord who trudged and agonised their way through the 90 minutes of his stupefying Tragédie, an exercise in tedium with few ghastlier rivals in my memory.

The trick, the hook for audiences, is of course the nudity, but in this age – when prurience and sexual bravado waltz hand in hand – there is no shock value, and in Dubois’ gaspingly portentous show, little interest. So: drum beats for half an hour; the arrival of the cast, and their interminable and deliberate parade-ground traipsings back and forth. (Passing thoughts concern the benefits of liposuction and a decent coiffeur; and those once-upon-a-time “photographic studies sent to mature art-lovers under plain cover”.)

For those of us given to looking at fine dancing, a walk is a thing of fascination: great performers tell how character and physical grace may combine in a simple step. Not so with this cast. Garnished with a quotation from Nietzsche, Dubois’ staging proposes the release of a common humanity through interminable action: walking, and more walking; ripest anguish, which means running about with flailing limbs; and the ultimate assault of loud, louder, loudest noise, strobe lighting, communal angst with limbs flailing, aimless running, galvanic despair (quite easy this: mouth open, hair untamed, limbs undisciplined, but do not try it at home); and the innocent belief that the audience will accept these hoary clichés as a comment upon the human condition. Again: not so.

The event is a dead weight, doomed to sink under the burden of its own pretensions (both physical and intellectual), and having less dramatic significance than a simple fifth position in a ballet class. The closing assault on our senses with a deafening electronic bombardment and strobe lighting, while bodies rush over the stage and finally decide that enough is enough, marks a nadir of bombast even for those inured to the posturings of Euro-trash dance.

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