“One night only, One night only, One night only” screamed Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. The same can be said for Fabula Collective who performed “Momentum – a mixed bill of seven pieces on the theme of losing, finding and moving on after a profound change” for one night only on 17 September in the main auditorium at Sadler's Wells.
When researching Fabula Collective it's hard not to be impressed. The website looks good, and the socials are active without being overbearing. And the blurb seems to say all the right things: “Fabula Collective was established in 2019 to be the catalyst for long-term, deep creative connections. Led by instinct and experience, we seek out new and established artists, across all disciplines, and we bring them together to create exceptional live and digital work for UK and international audiences.” Of course, the proof is in the pudding. I sound jaded. Ignore me.
The Fabula Collective also has two Associate Artists: James Pett and Travis Clausen-Knight. I remember a colleague at Trinity Laban Conservatoire praising Pett as a graduating student, so his reputation precedes him.
The roster for Momentum is strong throughout. It includes former Royal Ballet principal, Mara Galeazzi, now a freelance dancer and actress. Choreography by Christopher Marney, head of Studio Company and Trainee Program at Joffrey Ballet, Chicago. Current Nederlands Dans Theater artists Paxton Ricketts and Madoka Kariya. Cira Robinson, formerly of Ballet Black and now the new artistic director of the Yorkshire Ballet Seminars. Mlindi Kulashe, former leading soloist of Northern Ballet. And former Ballet Basel soloist, Kihako Narisawa.
The calibre of the cast definitely says something about Fabula Collective's creative director Yukiko Tsukamoto, as does the fact the programme included all-new commissioned music. A lot of effort for “One night only” – as you can tell I'm intrigued by this decision. Financial? Scheduling? Artistic?
The experience began with a complimentary programme. I repeat: complimentary. When does that ever happen in London? Shrewd move or lost revenue? Shrewd as people will most likely read it and subsequently engage more with the content on stage, even if money could have been made here.
Thou Art the Man by James Pett, with music from Sean Pett, opened the evening and was performed by Mara Galeazzi, Travis Clausen-Knight, Catarina Carvalho and William James. From the get-go, one could appreciate the level of production values. This didn't look or feel like an opening night – it was slick and sophisticated, and confirmed what's achievable with six white gauzes and expertly designed lighting.
The level of dancing also confirmed what we were in for throughout the programme. It felt very high end. The standard one expects from international visiting companies. Great to see.
Thou Art the Man was based on Edgar Allan Poe's detective story with Pett exploring “how society's views can shape the way each individual is perceived and judged – and how our human nature expresses itself through deceit and confession”. Well yes and no.
There was lots going on but I'm not sure the above description came across. An issue for me was the stop-start nature. Probably we went through more than 10 different scenes, which often finished abruptly. This didn't help with the narrative communication and actually confused things, though I definitely read four characters, then towards the end 3 vs 1, and ultimately the unfortunate demise of said individual.
The movement was mature and articulate and danced well. It was also great to see Galeazzi on stage. It's always so interesting when a dancer continues after ‘retiring' from their big job. She clearly has a lot more to say.
My issues with narrative (contemporary) dance continue. It's a delicate balance: too literal and the movement (or subsequent lack of) can suffer; too abstract and you spend the experience frowning intensely trying to work it out. Thou Art the Man didn't work as an antidote.
Blind To The Depths by Paxton Ricketts, with music by Sebastiaan Dutilh followed, performed by Ricketts and Madoka Kariya. Their blurb was question focused: “How much of our feelings, opinions, and desires do we allow to rise to the surface, and what do we push down? In connecting, when will we finally be able to share our whole selves?”
Hmmm… What I do know is that they're both incredible dancers that I'd probably watch do anything. Ricketts has Inspector Gadget style limbs which never end, and Kariya is something else: exquisite technique and aesthetic. She also has a very visual balance of tension and release in her movement – it's mesmerising.
Blind To The Depths uses a bar of lighting to develop the choreographic and narrative aspects, and it works well. At times it's three feet off the floor causing the dancers to look and feel deep in a form of suppression. The second half sees them struggle in a sweater tussle which allows for a bare-chested pas de deux to follow. I say pdd rather than duo as it felt like a development of their physical connection, and the visual conjoining of their bodies with actual skin to skin touch was emotionally charged. I'd say we saw a little too much of traumatic writhing on the floor – it tires quickly.
Serious Game followed, choreographed and performed by James Pett and Travis Clausen-Knight, the associate artists of Fabula Collective, with music by Masahiro Hiramoto and artistic input from Creative Director Yukiko Tsukamoto.
“A duet created in response to a creative challenge – using music incorporating Japanese instruments as a starting point, this piece is inspired by martial art Kendo and explores how to play within restrictions”
Duet – check.
Japanese music – check.
Martial art vibe – check.
Restriction exploration – check.
The last point certainly hits home. As the work progressed, I found myself analysing the balance of power. It felt like an unspoken competition between the two and the balance kept shifting, often realised through quite intricate, constrained partnering. Constrained to the point that it didn't always communicate much beyond the footlights. The music, lighting and energy of the dancers suggested high drama, but I didn't feel seriously engaged or inquisitive about the content.
I of the Storm by Travis Clausen-Knight, with dramaturgy from Joseph Alford and music by Simon McCorry, closed the first half of the programme. Performed by Sarah Chun, Juan Gil, Emma Spinosi, Dylan Springer, and Vanessa Vince-Pang, who were an extraordinary cast.
The blurb uses the word vulnerable and I'm definitely in agreement. The piece started with ‘sliding in socks' entrances and slow-mo phrasing – I was a little dubious. Also, the environment seemed heavy, as it was the fourth weighty and tense piece in a row… but the quality of the choreography and dancing saved me quite swiftly.
One could divide the work into two halves. First, we see the power and strength of the cast, and second, we see this transform into vulnerability. It's important to note, though, that the power is never lost.
The first half is busy – all five dancers seem to be involved throughout. Dynamic group work splitting into solos, duos, and trios. The choreography feels like the first time we've seen movement phrasing in the evening. We see line, suspension, turn, elevation. It's a lot to take in and could benefit from a little editing, so the eye and mind can hone in more at times, but it's very well crafted.
The second half is initiated with a solo by Juan Gil. What a dancer. He introduces the powerful vulnerability element, and we don't look back. You feel more connected to the dance: you can empathise and even embody the apparent need and longing of the dance and the dancers. All of the cast are superb, but I must mention Vanessa Vince-Pang – talk about power. At times her dancing moved into the realm of physical theatre, and she uses suspension in her movement to create vivid emotional peaks.
The work closed with Emma Spinosi changing into a dress with a very long train. And with an emotive yet sparse expression, she walked through the space. The excessive material suggested tension-in-space which was very Grahamesque. It would have been great to see this explored. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of Clausen-Knight's strong choreographic voice soon.
Trajectory by Kihako Narisawa came after the interval, performed by Narisawa herself and Grace Lyell. Music was by Masahiro Hiramoto with video design by OOOPStudio.
Brava, brava, brava. This was a game-changer for me. A true study of choreography. An experiment of movement, visuals, breath, voice, harmony, and discord.
And it challenged. I could sense people around me grow uncomfortable. And after a slight pause in the soundscape – using the voices of the cast? – some of the audience giggled. Not to be a snob, but that tends to mean you're doing something right. Perhaps they won't buy into the experience this time but at least they've been posed the question. The question being: can you find the value in something if you aren't being slapped around the face by it? Now I sound like a violent snob LOL! Anyways, Trajectory needs to be experienced, as that is what it is: an experience. One of minimalism, intention, and relationships. Think Laurie Anderson and Judson Dance Theater and you're moving in the right direction. BOOM.
CI was choreographed and performed by James Pett, with music from Sean Pett and dramaturgy by Ben Lewis.
Pett is a consummate dancer, but this piece didn't work for me. I couldn't connect with the movement language style. For the most part, it was quick, gestural, staccato, and insect-like. I'm not saying it lacked value but perhaps the movement would have benefited from more scope. I'm desperate to see Pett move in different ways. I wonder if he'll be able to create that opportunity for himself or whether he needs an external creator to guide him. Time will tell.
Eve by Christopher Marney with music from Jennie Muskett closed the (rather long!) evening. It was the largest cast of the programme led by Cira Robinson and Mlindi Kulashe, with Aitor Viscarolasaga Lopez, Mark Samaras, Harri Eiffert, Xholindi Muçi, Nicola Marchionne, Jasiah Marshall, Ping-Jung Chang and Maxwell Simoes.
You can't really go wrong with Robinson and Kulashe, so snaps for Marney.
Robinson has a calm, steely presence on stage. She never oversells, which I'm into. Her Eve was an observer. Even when in the depths of physical, verging on violent, pas de deux with Kulashe's Serpent, she seemed to keep her cool. It's an intriguing interpretation, as many would just go all-out. Kulashe is the other end of the spectrum – a big, attention-grabbing persona – but the Serpent called for it in this reading. They filled the stage, commanding the space with experienced dancing, and both used their eyes expertly – especially when projecting.
Marney offered some well-crafted work in the pas de deux. It didn't repeat and had a sense of moving forwards throughout. He also worked the cast of eight men who joined them proficiently. They executed neoclassical/contemporary movement that was stylish and embodied well in the barely-there leotards.
I'm a total bunhead and so I'm often aware of references, whether on purpose or by accident. I felt nods towards MacMillan's Prince of the Pagodas and Manon, and Balanchine's Serenade, which don't scream the Garden of Eden. But couldn't be ignored either.
I'm not sure what I learnt about temptation. But what I did learn is: if Robinson's in your corner you'll be fine.
Fabula Collective's Momentum was pitched as a “daring, unstoppable mixed bill”, and I wouldn't disagree. Daring was encapsulated in Narisawa's work, and unstoppable was how I started to feel around 10pm. All considered I'll certainly return – hopefully to see a full-length work by Clausen-Knight featuring all of the Collective, especially Pett.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and is currently on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.