I’m not a religious man, but sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how did we get here? by Julie Cunningham & Company (running until 29 January at Sadler’s Wells) is the closest I’m going to get to praying at an altar any time soon.
If you’re interested in dance – and new dance at that – then this show is a total must-see, but to be clear, it’s far more than just your average ‘dance’ show.
Sadler’s Wells has been transported. Where? Defo not planet Earth… somewhere far more cosmic. Freethinking. Space (pun #1) for one and all. The audience finds itself on stage, the action taking place in the centre with observers on four sides. The top two tiers of the theatre are closed, taking the capacity down from 1500 to approximately 550.
Movement purists won’t be disappointed. You get what you’d expect from Cunningham (pun #2). Line, tilt, and curve are in full play – in many different variations. All beautifully informed by playful, connected – between the cast – intention. Said connection also gives rudimentary unison a new lease of life. The dancers are ‘officially’ together, but realistically the work’s ethos encourages three totally individual interpretations of the same content. It’s so refreshing, but also daunting as you literally don’t know where to look – so much gorgeous dancing happening all at once!
Cunningham has a brilliant knack for defining space, offering sparsity, stillness and suspension which allows the observer to contemplate what they’ve created much more clearly – accessing true analysis. And the way the space is cultivated when travelling is an ongoing, contradictory conversation between geometry and randomness. It’s endlessly engaging. It seems to touch upon what being human is mostly about – endless, unanswered questions. Feeling lost and found simultaneously. You get the gist.
Cunningham also has stunning taste in music. From Nina Simone to Henry Purcell, the audio experience is as profound as everything else. The sound design and original score by Wibke Tiarks bring Cunningham’s cosmic creativity to life, and then some. One feels otherworldly throughout. This is also supported no end by Zeynep Kepekli’s lighting design. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to take away from the original experience you’ll have if you see a performance, but if you’ve seen the film Interstellar you’ll feel very at home. Likewise with the intergalactic style unitards by Stevie Stewart.
As if Cunningham needs any more praise, I have to mention their understanding and choreographic communication of rhythm. It’s both rigorous and accessible. The sign of a true genius at play IMHO.
And the final undeniable facet of their creative capabilities? Seemingly abstract movement laden with emotion. Go figure. Or perhaps don’t. Just let the dance do the talking. Because it does.
And what a cast Cunningham has curated. Harry Alexander is an envoy of movement. He executes choreography in such a simple, neutral way. The lack of affectation allows the work to literally sing from his body. And how tall is he?!
Melanie Chisholm is a strong, emotive dancer. Her face shows a depth of feeling throughout, and there’s a real range of emotions there. It’s going to be amazing to see where her performance goes over this short run of shows. Chisholm also happens to be Sporty Spice, and you’re instantly aware she’s got the presence to fill stadiums, which she obviously did in her tenure with the Spice Girls. It felt very special to watch her have this extraordinary experience, and that’s really saying something considering what she’s inevitably experienced in her career to date. It also says a lot about Cunningham and what their work means to people, especially those who have the honour to partake.
And to Cunningham themselves. The kind of dancer that happens only once a generation. A creative with a truly original voice who’s brave enough to use it, regardless of those who may try to silence or manhandle it. I could watch them dance forever. The innate, internal sense of balance. The line as sharp as a knife, as eternal as the horizon. The notion of endless possibility when exploring through space. And – without sounding like a stalker – when Cunningham executes a développé à la seconde the stars align. A thing of true wonder.
All the dancers have solo moments. But Cunningham’s to Purcell’s Dido’s Lament is the clincher. After seeing Mark Morris’ version, I can’t really unsee it. But I’d say Cunningham is definitely conversing on the same epic level. I’ll refer to it only as the knuckles & knees solo, which will let you go where it takes you when you witness it. But it will take you somewhere – that I can guarantee.
The three make a wonderful troupe. There’s something so mystical about a trio. An uneven symmetry that seems even more balanced than two or four in action. Their research and creative periods have obviously built a very strong bond – that felt apparent throughout – care, connection, and consideration abound.
There was also a lot of love in the audience. Cunningham has a loyal fan base. People love the work, but also love them. Why? I’d say it’s a lot to do with authenticity and vulnerability. They are who they are. And the work is them.
When I see work of this calibre, I get greedy. I want to see it all the time… everywhere. I start asking myself why Cunningham isn’t being commissioned by ballet companies in the UK. Why aren’t we getting to see what they could do in that context? But then I calm down and look at the facts – Cunningham’s work is this way because of the creative environment they shape. They allow for time and space and cultivate the right kind of artistic support. They can then find the work in a way that enables it to flow authentically. I’m sure they also feel pressure but the current framework is producing like a dream. So I’ll keep quiet, sedate, and revel when I can. Because this is where dance is – and where it should be going.
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.