“Through song and through dance, the human being manifests his belonging to a superior community; he has unlearnt to walk and to speak and, by dancing, he is on the point of taking a flight in space. His gestures portray his state of enchantment. The birth of tragedy.” Inspired by Nietzsche’s words, choreographer Oliver Dubois’ Tragédie at Sadler’s Wells strips its dancers – literally – of any preconceived types and mannerisms to expose the human body and its naturalness and explore the humanity within us all.

Tragédie forms the last section of a dance trilogy conceived by Dubois which focuses on resistance and insurrection. Its 18 dancers – nine men and nine women – are naked throughout and explore our original state of being when moving through Tragédie’s three stages. First a monotonous repetition where all dancers walk up and down the stage with military regularity and precision. Then a change occurs and they slowly begin to explore different patterns, shapes and human behaviours. Finally a state of ecstasy throws them into an uncontrollable frenzy, like a Dionysian celebration where our most primitive instincts are released and explored.

Oliver Dubios’ company work impressively together – they work like one organism, mastering precision and a sensitivity that makes it possible to move in precise patterns perfectly timed without any specific sound or light cue. The performance echoes rigid, perfectionistic work and applauds the body’s ability to move and transform itself when led by passion, talent and commitment. All dancers are individually skilled and intriguing to watch, and dramatically they succumb to the action and movement to an extent you would think humanly impossible.

Tragédie has grabbed the headlines because of its nudity, and – as expected – a show with such a strong, provocative concept will divide the waters. Dubois’ concept is clear and intriguing. He wants to strip the body of the artifice of society and show his dancers for what they are: human beings, neutral at the beginning so they can explore a human response to unity, break away from it and discover individuality and ecstasy without restrictions. On paper it all sounds great, but executed it creates problems for itself.

Dubois tests his audience with repetition, a hypnotic set of movements which seem to go on forever. The vision is clear – you need order before you can explore chaos – but he drags it out as to push the audience to its limit, leaving it uncomfortable and frustrating to experience. When the performers then release their potential and succumb to chaos, it goes into an orgy-like frenzy, with tribal shouts and shakes and naked bodies rolling on top of each other, throwing themselves into extreme exhaustion. We feel assaulted in a way, being exposed to what seems like a rave party gone wrong. All dancers are skilled, no doubt, but it asks the audience to push a limit and patience we’ve already used up in the first half.

The design is beautifully simple with an almost see-through back curtain for the dancers to use, and Patrick Riou’s light design is intriguing. Francois Caffenne’s music is fascinating and driven at times, at others its plain noise, almost unbearable, and the volume level is extremely high, making it a total experience at the same time as half-deafening you.

Tragédie is a show for those who love provocative productions that take their time to explore a certain concept, rather than a storyline. It has interesting – at times epic – shapes and bodily imagery, but it is a concept that works better on paper than executed. 

Tragédie is playing at Sadler’s Wells until 10 May. For more information and tickets, see the Sadler’s Wells website.