Demystifying dance will make more fall under its spell

As Rambert Dance Company take over the River Stage this weekend, Sarah Crompton looks back at why it’s dance that she’s always happiest watching

Rambert doing a dance workshop on the River Stage
Rambert doing a dance workshop on the River Stage
© James Bellorini

Why do some people love dance and some just think it is not for them? We all dance, after all, even if it is a drunken shuffle at a wedding. On that level it is the art form – along with singing – that should be most easy to approach.

For me, dance opened every door. I fell in love with ballet as a child not because I’d seen much but because I had read about a lot. Once I began to watch it, I was lost to it. Contemporary dance, hip hop dance have all followed on. I am happier watching dance than almost anywhere else on earth; I have spent some of my best and worst nights in a theatre watching contemporary noodlings. Yet I go on waiting patiently for that moment when the stage is illuminated by something more than can be spoken, some shaft of expression that I can carry around with me for the rest of my life.

Rambert at the River Stage will give people a sense of all the possibilities

But I know a lot of people don’t agree with me. They either don’t like what they have seen – or are frightened even to approach it, on the grounds that they won’t understand. Which is why it is so brilliant that from the evening of Friday 18 and all over the weekend, Rambert takes over the River Stage at the National Theatre (the proud media sponsor is WhatsOnStage) and just shows what it does. Brilliantly.

Rambert’s origins go back 90 years to its illustrious founder Marie Rambert who was in love with Nijinsky, who encouraged the early career of Frederick Ashton and who was a key player in the development of British dance. Her lively, inquisitive personality made her one of the people I most loved reading about when I was beginning to learn about dance.

But its strength as a company has been the way it has constantly reinvented itself, keeping itself at the forefront of contemporary trends. Now it is an entirely contemporary company, with some of the best dancers you will see anywhere in the world and a constant commitment to backing new work both in terms of choreography and of music. It tours widely and has extensive and deep-rooted education and community programmes.

There’s nothing threatening or difficult about dance viewed on a sunny evening by the river

The joy of their River Stage performances is the fact, as their chief executive Helen Shute points out, is that it offers them a rare opportunity to showcase all their activities in the same place – "and show how we believe in all of it equally." New works by tyro choreographers such as Patricia Okenwa, Daniel Davidson and Simone Damberg Würst rub shoulders with a chance for audience members to learn the moves to iconic Rambert favourites such as the Brazilian party piece A Linha Curva and Christopher Bruce’s famous Ghost Dances. Rising star Alexander Whitley also contributes a solo called Ulysses Awakes.

Then there are yoga classes. workshops, and performances both by Quicksilver (Rambert’s youth company) and a workshop for over 60s. It’s a vast range of activity, and people can watch for a moment, or for hours. They can join in or sit in their deckchair and cheer. All for free. "It doesn’t matter if you watch for minutes or hours," says Shute. "It just gives people a sense of all the possibilities."

I really hope it does. There’s nothing threatening or difficult about dance viewed on a sunny evening by the river. Rambert is a great company, with wonderful dancers. If just one person falls in love with dance from watching them on the River Stage, it will be time well spent. But I suspect that in demystifying and democratising the idea of dance, many more will fall – like me – under its spell.

This weekend Rambert Dance Company is taking over the River Stage on the South Bank from Friday to Sunday.