New dance and music pieces

Two new performances this February are concerned with the idea of mystery

At first glance, nothing connects the new production by Kodo, the acclaimed taiko performing arts ensemble from Japan that is currently visiting the UK, to Christopher Wheeldon’s latest work for the Royal Ballet. Yet both the ballet Strapless and Kodo’s fusion of dance, theatre and music try to capture the elusive quality of mystery through distinctive means.

Aptly entitled Mystery, Kodo’s new piece injects folkloric characters and serpentine dragons into its customary concert of drums, percussion, and flutes. The additions bring appealing dashes of color and humor to the two-hour performance, but the enigma that has assured this troupe’s international success persists: how do their drums create so much theatrical tension?

In a rigorous display of disciplined power and delicacy, the fifteen performers, including four women, hold conversations in sound, drawing whispers, chatter, and thunderous arguments from their instruments. The tone, volume, and rhythm shift constantly, establishing hypnotic patterns that define relationships in the same way that tap dancing does, marrying movement and sound into a single art.

Inspired by John Singer Sargent’s glamorous Portrait of Madame X, Mr. Wheeldon set out to invent an emotional fantasy about its subject, Mme. Gautreau, whose aloof posture in the famous painting seems to mask the woman’s personality and feelings. The resulting 45-minute ballet, Strapless, resembles a musical without songs, a series of scenes nearly devoid of atmosphere or narrative continuity but stuffed with action, elaborate costumes, rolling scenery and period furnishings.

As the woman socially spurned for reasons only the synopsis explains, Natalia Osipova easily fulfills the role employing a fraction of her remarkable acting talent. In a cat’s cradle of sexual attraction, the leading men are almost interchangeable dramatically with the notable exception of Federico Bonelli, who enlivens Sargent’s portrait of Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi with swaggering elegance and, alone in a cast muffled in black, regularly wears touches of red.

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Despite Mr. Wheeldon’s proven talent and wide experience, the mystery of Strapless lies in its disappointing combination of theatrical ambition and feeble choreographic expression.

Kodo One Earth Tour 2016 carries Mystery from the Barbican to five further venues, closing 22 February. See for full details.

The Royal Ballet mixed bill of Strapless and two other Wheeldon ballets remains in repertory until 11 March. The company revives his full-evening work, The Winter’s Tale, 12 April to 7 June.

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