Julia Cheng’s choreography for Cabaret is one of the most distinctive aspects of Rebecca Frecknall’s multi-award-winning production. She has also been involved in encouraging the exceptional finalists of the BBC’s Young Dancer 2022, which reached its inspiring conclusion last weekend with a worthy winner in the joyful 17-year-old Adhya Shastry. Cheng, like Shastry, is clearly a woman to watch.
Her quality and originality are obvious. But although Warrior Queens, created for her own House of Absolute company, is a labour of love developed over many years, which grew out of the Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention festival in 2016, it feels less innovative than Cheng is. Inspired by female fighters as disparate as Mulan and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, it opens with the powerful image of spotlit figures, each in an individual cone of light (courtesy of lighting designer Joshie Harriette), raising their arms, hands flexed, like a row of statues.
As it progresses, those striking moments continue but never quite cohere. The movement becomes more cliched – there’s a lot of stamping, legs in wide pliés, from its six-strong female cast performing with savage authority. Beibei Wang’s percussion challenges the Sadler’s Wells sound system with its ferocity.
The Matsena brothers – Anthony and Kel, born in Zimbabwe and raised in Wales – fill the second half of the programme with Shades of Blue, a bold new response to Black Lives Matter. This is also wonderfully lit (this time by Ryan Joseph Stafford) and superbly danced with huge commitment from its cast of nine. The movement is a compelling mixture of street and contemporary, hyper-flexible bodies falling and rising in fluid groupings, embodying authoritarian aggressors and those they attack.
At one point the dancers seem threatened by their environment itself, as the stage lighting rig comes crashing down, pinning them in a crouch beneath its blue glare. At another, they stagger across the stage, from light to dark, accelerating from extreme slo-mo to rapid run. They fall to the ground as if shot, and then spring up as if pulled by strings.
In the longest and most powerful section they form a square and obey the commands of a voice yelling instructions – “Intimidate!” “Confront!” – mimicking the actions demanded. Suddenly, one figure – Kel Matsena – who has seemed a leader, rapping about freedom and revolution, is left isolated after an impossible stream of demands at increasing speed.
What begins as vaguely humorous becomes intensely chilling as he struggles to do the right thing, terror seeping into his limbs. It reminded me of debbie tucker green’s ear for eye, with its haunting documentation of the impossibility of a black man doing anything to protect himself from danger. Every move is somehow wrong; Matsena’s prone body lying still on stage, even during the curtain call, is a terrible reminder of trauma.
It’s an impressive piece. The raw passion and sheer talent that propels the work makes you want to see more from both the Matsenas and Cheng. They feel like something new.