Mark Baldwin has always been staunch in his support of new music; under his direction of Rambert, composers as diverse as Julian Anderson and Scanner have been commissioned to write scores. But Baldwins most recent choreographic project is ambitious in a whole new direction producing an epic two hours of dance to Haydns 1798 oratorio, The Creation.
The work was originally created for the pastoral setting of Garsington Opera, but it adapts magnificently to the Wells stage. Its divided, front to back, by Pablo Bronsteins grandly gothic, beautifully lit altar screen. Ranked behind the screen are the BBC Singers and Ramberts own orchestra (conducted by the excellent Paul Hoskins), while the three soloists, Sarah Tynan (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Neal Davies (bass), are framed between its arches. The front of the stage is then left clear for the 43 dancers, who are drawn from the company and Ramberts school.Outstandingly deft Luke Ahmet with Simone Damberg Wrtz. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Massed forces like these are a rare treat on the contemporary dance stage, but at first Baldwins handling of them looks at odds with his score. Haydn sound-paints the story of Creation with vivid colour and atmosphere, yet Baldwin seems overly fearful of following his cues. The opening depiction of Chaos, for instance, is music of quiet, moving imminence, yet Baldwins response is to send his dancers off on reams of distractingly busy, complicated moves. Much of this dance material is gorgeous in itself, classically shaped steps that flicker with sharp propulsive rhythms and unexpected angles. The dancers, headed by the outstandingly deft, sharp Luke Ahmet perform at a technical peak, and, dressed in black or beige unitards decorated with ruffs and rosettes, they look like an engaging cross between carnival revellers and nimble choirboys.
However, Baldwin is so fastidiously anti-literal in his responses to his music and text that too often our eyes are quarrelling with our ears, and its difficult to engage with the piece as a whole.
About 20 minutes in, however, Baldwin seems to relax into the music and give his visual imagination freer play. Patterned ensembles flood the stage as God creates the sea; when fish, birds and beasts begin to populate the earth, Baldwin allows arrestingly specific images to morph from text into dance. His eagle soars aloft on grandly elegant ports de bras; his worm undulates winningly across the stage in its sinuous trance; and, as God populates the air with swarms of insects, a woman seems to float up to greet them, lifted drowsily high above her partners head.
With the arrival of Adam and Eve, Baldwin is clever at sidestepping the sexual politics of his Biblical source, choreographing a love duet of tender, mutual sensuality that is then expanded across six more couples (not all of them male-female). The combination of innocent rapture and worldly wit is pitch perfect, and it carries through to the final chorus where the energy on stage feels like a jubilant embrace of the sacred and profane.