Dance and arts writer Donald Hutera succumbs to the dark and beautiful magic of balletLORENT's Rapzunel at Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre on February 18, 2023
balletLORENT is marking its 30th anniversary with a revival of Rapunzel, a production that originated in 2012. This impressive piece of dance-theatre reshapes a familiar fairy tale, holding the attention of an all-ages audiences over two acts while also imprinting upon us images, feelings and kinaesthetic responses that linger in the memory.
The performance begins with a playful, loving duet beween Virginia Scudeletti and Toby Fitzgibbons as the future parents of our as yet unborn titular heroine. One of its pleasures is the unabashed honesty of the couple's amorousness; their lightly stylised movement feels natural to them and their feelings for each other. But on the other hand - and literally on the other side of the stage - there is the garden domain of Caroline Reece's Witch. Tall, gaunt and whip-wielding, and first seen in a long, large skirt beneath which lizard-like creatures lurk, she exudes a powerful, troubling aura of dark magic.
Springboarding from Carol Ann Duffy's text (delivered with dulcet ease by Lesley Sharp in voice-over), the dramatic nub of Lorent's Rapunzel is embedded within the conflicting but entwined desires of two women - one a needy birth mother, the other a possessive stepmother, but each occupying her role thanks to a cruel and poignant bargain. The significance of mothering and children is integral to a production which features as guest artists a quartet of female dance professionals, each of whom briefly brings her child onstage. These delightful cameo appearances, plus the participation of seven buoyantly talented youngsters recruited from Heathbrook Primary School in London, are among the show's many charms.
The ensemble choreography for Lorent's ten company members has an appealingly rough exuberance that sometimes suggests folk dance or pagan ritual. But the wildness, if that's not too strong a word, is never reckless. Rather, the dancing's headlong momentum and sensual stretch arises from a heightened physical expression that is disciplined but also recognisably human. For me it is a reminder that Lorent's dancers have always been more than technicians. Athough they are highly capable movers, they don't flaunt their virtuosity. Instead, their skills serve the story and convey its emotions.
The duet between Rapunzel (Natalie MacGillivray) and the sporty Prince (Gavin Coward) is a good example, and a contrapuntal companion to the earlier parental duet. Staged inside the open-sided tower in which the Witch has locked Rapunzel, its vigorous ardour feels entirely true to the sensations coursing through this new couple. They swing, bend, climb and slide their way through what is essentially a courtship dance on a gratifying current of discovered ecstasy and equality. MacGillivray and Coward are strong dancers who rightly give themselves over to characters who, again, have strong feelings for each other.
Lorent's unseen collaborators also make important contributions to the work. Phil Eddolls' handsome designs principally consist of fancily-wrought, wheeled and sometimes platformed gates and grills that can also function like a climbing gym. The detailed fabrics of Michele (Game of Thrones) Clapton's evocative costumes combine weight and flow. The dancing coasts along on music by Murray Gold that transitions easily from triumphal to suspenseful to ludic or soothing. Both his recorded score and Malcolm RIppeth's sensitive lighting help steer the show's shifting moods and tones.
balletLORENT's approach to storytelling in Rapunzel is adept, absorbing and fun. Lorent and her cast and creatives balance with aplomb some tricky contrasts between childlessness and fecundity, childhood and sexual maturity, grievous loss and longing versus warm, lively, impish and joyful cavorting. This is a family show with an innate understanding of the ambiguities of love.
Donald Hutera is a UK-based freelance journalist and devising performer. His print and online work can be found in The Times and The Stage. He is a member of Rhiannon Faith Company and Posh Club*Dance Club aka PC*DC.
Photo credit: Bill Cooper