Dance Review: Outwitting the Devil / Heartbeat of Home

A rare foray into the world of dance saw me catch the highly atmospheric Outwitting the Devil from the Akram Khan Company and Heartbeat of Home at the Piccadilly Theatre

I’m not necessarily known for my dance reviews but that’s mostly because I do find it a little difficult to write about, trapped in a vicious circle of not considering myself to have enough relevant experience to write about it in a meaningful way, and thus never booking in to see it, thus never gaining that experience… Over the last weeks though, circumstance has conspired to get me to see the Akram Khan Company in Amsterdam and Heartbeat of Home much closer to home and so, I’m practically a dance critic now. Severrrrrn…

On the precipice of retirement, Khan has decided to focus his considerable talent (Binoche! Kylie!) on choreography, “dancing [his] ideas through the bodies of others” as he so eloquently puts it and the first fruit of this stage of his career is Outwitting the Devil. Inspired by a fragment from the 4,000 year old Epic of Gilgamesh, it is a powerfully evocative if thematically vague piece for six dancers and while I found it largely very impressive, I was grateful to have programme notes to give it some narrative structure.

© Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Not that I needed to be told exactly what it was ‘about’, but more about giving context to deepen the texture of the work onstage. For what Outwitting… does brilliantly is meld the differing styles of the individual performers – traditional Asian rubs shoulders directly with contemporary and hip-hop-influenced moves – with Khan’s own Kathak-inspired aesthetic to create something hypnotically, kinetically compelling. Incorporating dancers of different ages also layers in real interest in its complementary contrast and often breath-taking sequences.

Like many people, I suspect, I quite like a bit of Riverdance but I don’t know if I could eat a whole one. And perhaps cognisant of this, one of the key braind behind it – John McColgan – has further developed the brand, its latest iteration being the perky Heartbeat of Home, resident at the Piccadilly Theatre for a few weeks. Blending Irish dancing with dance styles from across the globe, it’s a canny move and one which eventually pays off.  Based heavily (and unsurprisingly) on the theme of home, the first act has a little too much reliance on conventional notions of just what that is, veering dangerously close to stereotype as each ‘tribe’ does their own thing. The black dancers’ home is deemed to be non-specific Africa, the white people are obviously from Ireland…

© Jim Byrne Riverdream Productions

Creatively, there’s a lot more fun to be had post-interval as a lot more artistic freedom becomes apparent. A welcome slice of comic personality is threaded through an ingenious routine based on the iconic ‘Lunch Atop A Skyscraper’ photograph. And with the tacit acknowledgement of migration, the idea of home expands to encompass the homes – and families – we choose to surround ourselves with, no matter where they ‘come from’. And here, David Bolger’s choreography excels as it binds together all its influences into all its routines. Syncopated rhythms unite across all cultures, flamenco footstamps respond to Irish toetaps and everyone loves a good bit of drumming. Real exhilaration comes from the way these disparate styles are married in this way which for me, proves far more exciting than the more traditional basis of that first act.

Main photo: Jim Byrne Riverdream Productions
Outwitting the Devil tours Europe through April 2020; Heartbeat of Home is booking at the Piccadilly Theatre until 13th October

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