Clorinda Agonistes review – a dance of love and death on the battlefield | Sadler’s Well

EEvery man kills what he loves, though rarely on the battlefield. Shobana Jeyasingh’s layered new dance work is inspired by a 16th century epic poem in which the Crusader Tancredi slays a valiant Saracen only to find it is Clorinda, the woman he loves.

Monteverdi’s scene on this episode is a 20-minute wonder. First staged in a Venetian palace in 1624, its driving rhythms represent a musical leap forward – pizzicato evokes metallic sword-strokes, swaying strings spitting sparks for the heat of battle. And Robert Hollingworth’s musicians are suitably bristling.

Soaring and dashing through Merle Hensel’s set of soaring glass pillars, Jemima Brown makes Clorinda unpredictable, while Jonathan Goddard’s Tancredi is almost whimsically accurate, fencing rather than slashing. These exceptional dancers create an electric charge – they jump, kick, roll until exhaustion. With a courteous flourish, Tancredi asks for Clorinda’s name; she holds him back, pushing an elbow on his sternum. Enraged, he deals the killing blow with a hug.

Who frames the story of Clorinde? In Monteverdi, a narrator takes the lion’s share, and Jeyasingh takes this further, with tenor Ed Lyon also singing the fighters’ lines. Fervent, tired, distressed, it expresses the changing atmospheres of the encounter. He crouches like a war reporter as the warriors struggle and swerve – but is Clorinde’s last-breathed ecstatic conversion to Christianity the story she would choose to tell?

Modern Crusade… the second part of Clorinda Agonistes, written by Kareem Roustom. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In a less tense second section, composed by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom, four women become avatars of a present-day Clorinde, rushing at top speed to safety. Ruthless projections show a devastating and nameless conflict in the Middle East. The pillars, previously shrouded in Lee Curran’s rich emerald light, darken or fill with scarlet. This is how a crusade appears to those caught in it, less glamorous and chivalrous than in Monteverdi’s work.

A recorded mezzo sings in Arabic. Goddard and Lyon reappear as cameraman and sound operator, advancing dispassionately as the women whirl and fall. They too resist being known, their arms raised in their faces, their heads turned to one side. Line of unknowability, they advance in profile, advancing in emphatic leaps. The ropes slip, dazed with fatigue, but the women carry on. A fable about conversion now ends with the challenge.

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