fagin cast

Fagin’s Twist

Patrick Centre

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

Avant Garde Dance is a young company brimming with talent: on this occasion, an octet of dancers who ooze with energy, interact superbly and charge every move and gesture with sizzling electricity.

Their heads, elbows and shoulders are as brilliantly synchronised as their legs are deft and their bodies fluent. At their best, they galvanise the entire theatre and mesmerise their audience with their endless invention, spirited capers and heart-warming realism. Avante Garde amounts to scintillating experience.

The company was founded in 2001 by Tony Adigun after he felt disillusioned with aspects, in particular the unoriginality, predictability and even banality, of the type of dance he was all too often required to participate in.

He determined to set up a company of like-minded young dancers that brought together many aspects of contemporary dance, but in particular the vivacity, angularity and syncopation of hip-hop,dodger and to engineer productions that were unfettered by tradition, but rather left free to pursue their own fresh approach: ‘a new style, with no rules or limits.’

Fagin’s Twist exemplifies just these qualities, and from the outset the dance element was exciting, vital and at best riveting. But there, perhaps, the qualities of Part 1 were exhausted. Both here and in the much better Part 2 there were some brilliant sequences passing items from one to another – a clutter of boxes, ‘posh’ bright yellow handkerchiefs, hats, the stolen watch that means so much to Oliver. But the music, having started well with a kind of Tubular Bells like percussion effect, converting to an initially mesmerising perpetuo moto, and some really exciting use of a searing cello solo (for the Artful Dodger) which sounds as if it is played live (much else being, I take it, recorded) starts, by a third of the way through, to become wearisome.

Where the music does pick up – and there is more of this later on – is where the recurring aspects become less ponderous and hammering and where a series of gently plaintive patterns, and harp-like touches a bit like the Estonian Arvo Part’s pleading Für Alina, conjure up moments of real magic.

What else, the quality of the dance apart, serves the production well? The set – three hefty slatted high platforms with flexible doors carved through them – yielded a host of different backdrops or cupboard like containers through which Oliver, in particular, deftly weaves; the costumes, especially latterly, were splendidly appropriate and appealing to gaze on; the endlessly varied use of space impressed – although the very front of the stage was neglected (a common deficiency with plays as much as dance).  

However what made the first part tangibly inferior to the second was the complete uncertainty of the story line. In the absence of any printed programme and any explanatory notes (including, crucially, castlists) it is supposed to show us the early part of Fagin’s life – something which seemed inadequately, indeed minimally, captured by the choreography.

Joshua James Smith featured large as Fagin himself, but what we were presented with was seemingly an abstract piece, attractively danced and with lots of clever touches - yet to the uninitiated, more or less arcane and meaningless in content. Visually this was redeemed by a couple of riveting duets near the end featuring (possibly) Bill Sykes, and by a final ensemble that was as catchy and energised as anything thus far.

If the abstraction of the first half fell badly short on the narrative front, the second half picked up, and excitingly: Smith’s Fagin came vividly alive, the Dodger continued to act as a spirited and thoughtful narrator (words being used periodically amid the dance), Bill Sykes became quite prominent and Nancy with him. The young (girl) Oliver proved to be as pliant and supple as any of the dancers: (s)he moved with the magnetising allure of Shakespeare’s Ariel, her staggering pliability, darting head movements and springy changes of direction all utterly enchanting. The music, much less oppressive, now calmed down quite a lot and served the drama better.

While the two ‘yellow handkerchief’ sequences were quite splendidly and eye-openingly fashioned, one of the high points was a solo or soliloquy for Fagin, magically danced by Smith before his unexpected demise (to grieving rising and falling string semitones). But the quality of Adigun’s choreography could be seen especially in two or three pas-de-deux (Bill and Nancy, Fagin and Oliver), and even more so in two memorable pas-de-trois, the first most effectively featuring sad, wan strings supported by serene piano chordings.

But the joy of the whole production was Oliver’s monkey-like scampering and ability to squeeze through any aperture, and his vigorous efforts to regain the watch, an heirloom from his dead mother, from those who have held him virtual prisoner. At the end, in an extraordinarily skillful switch or transfer, the boy acquires the coat signalling authority. You are left with the feeling that Oliver has assumed charge of the entire outfit, taking on the powers formerly held by Smith’s Fagin.  

Roderic Dunnett

21-10-16

Tuesday 25 Oct 7.30 Lakeside Arts, Nottingham  www.lakesidearts.org.uk 

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