The annual Sampled festival, a fixture at Sadler’s Wells since 2007, showcases different kinds of international dance. This year, not everything works, or works together.

The (LA) HORDE company literally kick off in To Da Bone. Their hardstyle movement came out of the Belgian and Dutch club scene and involves stamping, pivoting and running on the spot in time with 150bpm music. Its dance antecedents are tap, line dancing and traditional Irish, with a dash of martial arts and parkour. Here the whole thing grinds on in grim silence and the dancers look like stone-faced army recruits warming up for a jog.

Max Revell, winner of the 2019 BBC Young Dancer competition, offers a soft, pity-evoking routine, Unstrung. With his black braces, short trousers and white-painted face, his wrists and feet connected by stretchy resistance bands, Revell resembles a cross between a mime and Frankenstein’s blundering monster. The elastics pull him down and impede his popping and locking with hunches, trips and limps. Yet they also transform into crutches, supports and guide ropes. The choreography, by Dickson Mbi, plays to Revell’s strength, which is vulnerability.

Shree Savani looks out of place rigged up in silks, jewellery and brocade, enacting a 3,000-year-old narrative based on ancient scriptures from Tamil Nadu. The 21-year-old was a BBC 2019 Young Dancer finalist, representing classical Indian bharatanatyam dance. But she holds the stage with pleasure and power, thanks to the boldness of choreographer Bhagya Lakshmi Thyagarajan. Her piece, Devi, harnesses Hindu goddess energy and gives Savani some good stark positioning, chin up and hands aloft as if lassoing a fleeing minion. The crowd, openly tittering at first, is won over.

Studio Wayne McGregor’s project Living Archive has been conceived with Google’s Arts and Culture Lab (has anything sounded more dystopian and oxymoronic?). Hours of dance video were put through the system, which then suggested possible subsequent phrases. This high concept, designed to generate non-narrative abstraction, reaches the stage as something earthy and fluid. Dancers cluster, building each other up in sleek cheerleader throws, before breaking away for a split second of spotlight-stealing.

The evening’s standout act is Botis Seva’s hip-hop theatre collective Far From the Norm. Their Olivier award-winning piece BLKDOG is a deeply compelling work about trauma. The juddering dancers, in tracksuits with the hoods pulled tight around their heads, resemble child asylum inmates or the doppelgangers in Jordan Peele’s film Us. Seva’s physical language is extraordinary: cowed, hunched figures scuttle and putter blindly, writhing and knotted. They keel over or beetle along in a tiptoed crouch. The images throughout are of being felled, hobbled and tripped, restrained or shackled. Be sure to catch the full performance of BLKDOG when it comes to the same venue in October.

Seva’s pain finds a sweetener in Ezequiel Lopez and Camila Alegre’s three tangos. Their joyful set transitions from frisky flirtation – showcasing Alegre’s jaw-dropping triple-speed kicks and leg wraps – to slow, soulful concentration.

The last company, Géométrie Variable, was founded by hip-hop dancers Sadeck Berrabah and Ammar Benbouzid. Their piece Labora RD features performers clad in black, with their sleeves rolled up, forming geometric shapes with their forearms: cubes, prisms, fractals. It’s interesting to see dance informed by graphic design, robotics and semaphore, but these dancers have no presence or chemistry and the piece has no soul.

All griping is forgotten a few days later thanks to Michael Keegan-Dolan’s exceptional Mám, which premiered in Ireland last autumn. Inspired by a community hall on the northern Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, the set features a low stage, from which the concertina player Cormac Begley and seven musicians from the Stargaze collective accompany 12 indefatigable dancers. The performers brilliantly enact an unstinting ritual summoning that changes from flirtation to combat, drunken morass to melancholy meandering.

Keegan-Dolan and his company Teaċ Daṁsa first came to prominence here in 2016 with his rapturously received take on Swan Lake. Mám more than vindicates that interest. His choreography constantly reverts to folk and communal forms: the round, the fling, the shindig, the square dance, the whirl. This could be a wedding party or a wake, a couples’ dance or a competition, a rural disco or a witches’ sabbath. The movement is frenetic and demanding, a head-messing flurry of spins, grabs, swoops, peevish strides and prowling flirtations leavened with blissed-out glides.

The music passes easily from light jazz to warm, energising trad, stomping rock and sleek soul, sometimes snapping sharply between opposite styles. There are layers of clever additional sound: sudden screaming, hysterical laughter, claps, slaps, gasps and finger clicks all add to the arcane texture. An unmissable exorcism.

Star ratings (out of five)
Sampled ★★★
Mám ★★★★★


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