The Knot review – till Instagram do us part
In her new work The Knot, the Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman and her company, Umanoove, turn a sceptical eye on the ritual and ceremony of the wedding day. With a cast of seven exceptional dancers, all of whom joyously inhabit Veldman’s rigorous, classically inflected vocabulary, the piece presents us with the highlights of the big day. Fractured and non-linear, and set to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary score for Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 ballet Les Noces, it also asks the questions that, on this of all days, cannot be voiced: is any such occasion equal to the intense weight of expectation bearing upon it? What are the couple at the epicentre of this storm of sentiment actually promising each other? Can love between two people really be “eternal”?
Nijinska’s proto-feminist ballet, with its sacrificial theme and inexorable, fatalistic tone, is one of the great artworks of the 20th century. As Stravinsky’s fierce sonorities rage, we see the ritual preparation of the bride, and her surrender to a marriage as inescapable as death. For the purposes of The Knot, Veldman has punctuated Stravinsky’s score with impressionistic passages by the contemporary composer Ben Foskett. The result is less iconoclastic than might be supposed, braking the relentless momentum of the song suite and opening it out into something more interrogative.
Veldman’s account of marriage has much in common with a photo-spread in Hello! or OK!. There’s the same stop-start rhythm; the same postmodern impression of a flow of events constantly interrupted so that it can be recomposed and relived for the camera lens. The choreography reflects this uneasy sense of fracture, with off-centre tilts, stabbing extensions and sharply expressive duets. Sara Harton is draped in white tulle and crowned with roses before she slips away unnoticed, leaving her retinue admiring her fashionable array of accessories. Dane Hurst, surrounded by a circle of empty gilt chairs, performs a whirling, meditative solo. A slow-motion sequence shows the barely concealed scuffle when Harton throws her bouquet, and Mai Lisa Guinoo’s savage triumph as she catches it. Less successful is a passage in which members of the audience are invited on stage to share the wedding dances. We get that we’re the guests, but this is twee, and undercuts the incisiveness of the whole.
In a recent piece in the American publication Dance Magazine, Theresa Ruth Howard notes the evolution of Instagram ballet “tricksters” – young dancers who post images or clips of extreme, hyperextended positions, multiple pirouettes, endless balances and highly arched feet. When these “fetishised” attributes are taken out of the context of a dance combination and presented as ends in themselves, Howard argues, we see a devaluation of the art form. Can these stretchers and balancers actually dance, she wonders, and concludes that in many cases they can’t. And as a former performer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and a founder member of Armitage Gone! Dance, she should know.
Royal Ballet School director Christopher Powney, meanwhile, posted a statement earlier this month in which he questions the culture of ballet competitions, “where technique is emphasised over artistry and students seek to reach extremes before they have mastered the basics”. Like Howard, Powney regrets both the pressures placed upon young dancers fast-tracked to perform “elaborate physical tricks”, and the wider loss to ballet when this facility is prioritised over musicality, dramatic skill and expressiveness.
The culture Howard and Powney are decrying has taken hold of ballet at a professional as well as at a student level. Ballet is about flow. It’s about unfurling sentences and paragraphs of movement, not single highlighted words. As Howard writes: “Dancing happens in the transitions, in the pathways. The foundation of technique is in the ‘how’ steps are entered and exited.” But today, much new classical dance is presented as a linked series of photoflash images set to music, which performs the function of wallpaper. Musical phrasing, if contemplated at all, is subordinated to hyper-physical technical effect. Ballet, like life, is rendered down to the Instagrammable moment.
This, essentially, is what Veldman is addressing in The Knot – the idea of an event that has slipped its moorings and, with the sacramental origins of its rituals forgotten, has been reduced to a series of kitsch poses and video clips. Nowhere in the 70 compressed minutes of The Knot do we sense the presence of love. It has been displaced by symbols of love. “Can we control what we lose?” asks Howard, with reference to ballet. “In the shifting universe, can we as a community decide what is of such value that we preserve it?”