Sadler's Wells: Undance

Helen Wallace reviews the world premiere of a much-talked-about collaboration between Mark-Anthony Turnage, Wayne McGregor and Mark Wallinger

It’s not everyday a conceptual artist dictates the scenario for a choreographer and a composer to create a dance… rarer still for it to work out. They called it a ‘supergroup’, but three could so easily have been a crowd. Instead Wayne McGregor and Mark-Anthony Turnage submitted to Mark Wallinger’s intricate concept of ‘undoing’ movement – and produced a dance of exhilarating simplicity.

The starting point was Eadweard Muybridge’s ground-breaking photographs of human movement on a grid, alongside sculptor Richard Serra’s list of verbs, his own bid to get back to first principles. Wallinger threw in Newton’s laws of motion and the idea that the United Nations initials in a war zone signified ‘un-’ – a hopeless intention to undo the wrongs, unwind time.

If that sounds like too much conceptual freight, Turnage distilled it into a score of visceral, dynamic impact. In eight short, highly contrasted episodes he explored duality of action – to dig and twist, to jump and hammer, to slide and fall – and of sonority too: winds against strings, mallet instruments against brass, a bowed viola flickering with a plucked harp string. Melodies interlocked and crawled around each other; good old-fashioned canon played its part.

It was a choreographer’s dream: a brusque, imposing opening saw the Random Dance troupe, dressed to look like Muybridge’s naked subjects, run on, shadowed by themselves filmed on a grid, time-lapsed, mirrored or sometimes ahead of them. There were ‘equal and opposite reactions’ between couples in intricate, mechanic discourse, while shades of Hollywood swing animated another section. The concept of ‘undoing’ wasn’t sufficiently mined in the choreography, though McGregor’s dazzling invention never fails him.

Turnage’s inimitable voice – blues-infused, grandly lyric – has lost the congestion that briefly muddied some scores and emerged as sharp and fresh as his earliest works, but with a new, burning flow. A performance of the powerful Twice through the Heart (1997) sung by Sarah Connolly, with the impressive Undance Band conducted by Tim Murray, is a fine example of his writing at its most opulent. Connolly was mesmerising as the abused woman who has killed her husband, transferring the prison of her home to an actual cell in Jackie Kay’s coruscating poem.

I still wonder whether this ‘opera’ voice is what he originally envisaged for this work: it cries out for some rawer, more damaged quality. Connolly’s movements were deftly woven by McGregor into an extraordinary space of 3D projection by OpenEndedGroup, in which organic forms grew towards us as spectres and nightmares encroached on her mind, objects from the house dissolving and dispersing. Just as 3D is losing its shine at the cinema, live theatre uncovers an intriguing new potential.

UNDANCE/Twice Through the Heart is on at Sadler's Wells, London is on until 3 December

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine