Choreographer Christopher Bruce has long been the Cotton Mather of ballet and nobody expected him to stop sermonizing when he took over the venerable London-based Rambert Dance Company in 1994. Originally a pioneer classical ensemble, Rambert had become a pillar of rigorous modernism before Bruce gave it its latest identity: high-minded European tanz-theater with a British accent, dramatic in orientation but with plenty of ballet technique on display.
Indeed, Bruce's need to preach often clashed with the showcase elements in his choreography during the 22-member company's impressively danced mixed bill at Pepperdine University on Thursday. In "Swansong" (1987), he returned to a favorite theme--contemporary brutality--and used the percussive language of tap-dancing as a metaphor. Deceptively jaunty, two interrogators in khaki tapped out rhythmic patterns that were clearly meant to be understood as questions. When their prisoner refused to answer, they launched ever more dangerous gymnastic assaults set to an ominous soundscore by Philip Chambon.
Didy Veldman portrayed the victim capably, with Vincent Redmon and Hope Muir faultless as her torturers. But Veldman's lyrical extensions and elegant leg-beats when being thrown about in the torture sequences undercut the grim intensity of the situation--especially when compared to the uncompromising depiction of brutality in "Enter Achilles" by DV8 Physical Theatre, which represents the next British dance-theater generation. Who needs prettified torture? ("Swansong" is now also scheduled to be danced by an all-male cast at some performances, with Simon Cooper as one of the interrogators.)
In "Rooster" (1994), Bruce used vintage Rolling Stones recordings for a deliberately nasty sex-war divertissement: the five men asked to be strutting bullies, the five women either victims or incorrigible sex-teases, but everyone also courting the audience with nonstop fancy footwork. Once again social comment didn't always mix well with hard-sell virtuosity, though Paul Liburd wallowed magnificently in a pool of lust through "Paint It Black," Patricia Hines personified troubled dignity as Ruby Tuesday and Glenn Wilkinson powerfully pecked and preened as the cocky leader of the recapitulation-style "Sympathy for the Devil" finale.
Like Bruce, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin has a taste for ambitious themes and a sweet tooth when it comes to bravura. His Batsheva Dance Company arrives in the Southland next week, but the Rambert forces offered a preview with "Axioma 7" to Bach's fourth Brandenburg concerto. The piece began with 19 dancers seated in a semicircle of chairs, each moving in sequence from chair to chair and dancing a solo while going across the stage from the chair on the extreme right to the one on the extreme left. This rite of passage involved taking off clothes, with Joanne Foanne the last nonconformist to strip to her underwear.
Soon, in a duet for Cooper and Elizabeth Old, we saw images of a fallen man being pulled along and lifted by his partner--images reiterated later in a duet for Wilkinson and Rafael Bonachela. Foanne also reappeared, usually as an outsider, as Naharin cleverly rearranged bodies and chairs without ever fully bringing his themes into focus. However, the piece's pileup of movement vocabularies showed Rambert Dance Company at its most brilliantly versatile and who can complain about that?
* Rambert Dance Company, tonight at 8, Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Brentwood. $10-$35. (310) 825-2101. Also March 13-14, 8 p.m., and March 14-15, 2 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $10-$35. (714) 556-ARTS.