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Dance show displays the forces of nature at work; FOR birds it's a matter of life and death but their ritual dancing has provided Rambert Dance Company with their latest big hit, as DAVID WHETSTONE reports.


THE forces of nature work in mysterious ways. You might even think a mischievous sense of humour was involved.

While a volcano fills the skies with ash, ensuring planes stay grounded, the birds are going mental.

It's the mating season, you see. In all the trees and hedgerows, bird brains are focused on the furtherance of the species with strutting, shrieking and posturing.

Some of this we will see reflected on stage this week as Rambert Dance Company arrive in Newcastle with a piece of work commemorating 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species.

It is called The Comedy of Change and it was launched in the autumn in Plymouth, where Darwin set sail on his maiden voyage back in 1831.

It is not the first time Mark Baldwin, the dance company's artistic director, has taken science as his starting point. His first choreographic work for the company, Constant Speed, was inspired by Einstein theory and had dancers racing around like molecules.

Mark, who took the top job at Rambert in 2002, recalls it as "quite jolly". We saw the award-winning piece here in 2006.

The New Zealander, a one-time Rambert dancer, says this new work arose from a conversation he had with Darwin's great grandson, Stephen Keynes (who is also a nephew of the economist and arts patron John Maynard Keynes).

Mark says: "I've known him for ages. He was a friend of a friend who has always loved the arts, especially dance.

"He asked us if we'd do something about Darwin as part of the celebrations. There are all these strange connections with this piece."

Another concerns the composer Julian Anderson, who wrote the specially commissioned score for The Comedy of Change having worked with Mark on two previous ballets.

His father was Prof ES Anderson, an eminent microbiologist and Fellow of the Royal Society who died in 2006, aged 94.

Naturally, The Comedy of Change boasts its own scientific adviser, dance enthusiast Prof Nicky Clayton of Cambridge University, who has always been fascinated by birds and is an expert on the crow family, which also includes jackdaws, rooks and jays.

"Some of them live for 40 years and they're highly intelligent," says Mark.

"What Nicky did was show me all these films made by her friend David Attenborough which show all these elaborate mating dances that birds have developed over many years.

"They show how female birds make the decision about who to go off and mate with. It can depend on something incredibly subtle, such as the way a male bird steps this way or that.

"Some of the films are very funny. You can see a bird really going for it and at the last minute the female will go off with someone else."

A deflated suitor, adds Mark, can be susceptible to predation, which further explains the frenetic nature of the mating dance. It also further emphasises how cruel nature can be, when the price of rejection is consumption.

Using all this raw nature as his source material, Mark has fashioned The Comedy of Change with its three parts: Past and Future; Same but Different; and Reveal and Conceal.

In some passages, he says, the dancing of the birds has become the moves of the dancers with very little embellishment or amendment.

Prof Clayton, who is based in Cambridge University's department of experimental psychology, clearly enjoyed her role advising the Rambert creative team, saying: "A large part of my life is spent dancing - ballet, jazz and particularly Latin dance like salsa and tango.

"Of course, birds dance too. I have a favourite video clip that I show my students of the swallow-tailed manakin. It's the avian equivalent of tango and, not surprisingly, these birds are found in Argentina."

As you might imagine, The Comedy of Change gave plenty of scope to artist Kader Attia, in charge of production design. Rambert Dance Theatre are raising money for a pounds 19m new home on London's South Bank which they insist is crucial to their future survival in the arts jungle. Of that large sum, pounds 8m is in the bag.

Rambert Dance Company are at the Theatre Royal from tomorrow until Friday with a programme that also includes two other works - The Art of Touch, choreographed by Siobhan Davies, and Tread Softly, a new piece by Henri Oguike.

Box office: 0844 811 2121.


BIRDS OF A FEATHER The Comedy of Change was originally launched in the autumn in Plymouth
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 20, 2010
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