Ballet National de Marseille’s 70-minute dance drama is a quite epic foray into the possibilities of artistic expression. Using 17 dancers in the almost completely bare Royal Festival Hall space, Body.Dance.Nation.City entrances your attention by presenting ballet in a most contemporary fashion.

The opening involves the company’s only black male dancer alone on stage, twisting and swerving expertly in the spotlight. Before long, he is surrounded by 16 other dancers, all of whom are dressed top to toe in beige, including their faces. The blankness of the face masks lends a literal faceless quality to the other dancers and allows the audience to see them through the perspective of the black protagonist. Whether or not this serves as an abstract metaphor for French colonization (La Marseillaise is whistled chillingly halfway through the piece) is not altogether vital in itself. What is enthralling to behold about this performance is the way that it studies the relationship between the one and the whole – “the relationship between the individual body and wider society”.

The set design is effortlessly effective with the perimeter of the stage simply cordoned off by hanging vines of shimmering material. It creates a translucent border that allows performers to be seen approaching and disappearing on and off stage through the material itself. In this way, it creates a clear manifest image of the fragile boundaries that existed between nomadic tribes and indeed between countries in today’s increasingly globalised international framework.

The sound and lighting work in tandem to create moments of great tension and energy with the intended purpose seemingly being as much about keeping the audience guessing as it is to alert them to the different environments the story is flitting between. The dancers themselves are, as one would expect, outstanding in their ability to hold shapes of great symbolic importance and to work together, creating formations that seem like paintings on the stage’s blank canvas. In the piece’s little skits and pastiches later on, they are as expressive with their facial expressions and body language as they are with their dancing and this is what makes this such an appealing piece to everyone, not simply the ballet fanatic.

Artistic Directors, Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten, deserve high praise along with their company for producing a truly engaging piece of dance-theatre. It is poignant to watch a piece about tribes and boundaries on the same day that Black Lives Matter activists are staging protests near London in an act of globalized organisation amongst splinter groups on both sides of the Atlantic. The extremely diverse company of Ballet National de Marseille present a close examination of the human being’s relationship to itself and its society and this forms an important and necessary part of the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love.

Ballet National de Marseille perform
Body.Dance.Nation.City at the Royal Festival Hall 5-6 August as part of Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love. See the Southbank Centre’s website for details.