JUlia Cheng’s choreography for Cabaret is one of the most distinctive aspects of Rebecca Frecknall’s award-winning production. She was also involved in cheering on the outstanding finalists of the BBC’s Young Dancer 2022, which reached its inspiring conclusion last weekend with a worthy winner in cheerful 17-year-old Adhya Shastry. Cheng, like Shastry, is clearly a woman to watch.
Its quality and originality are evident. But good warrior queens, created for his own company House of Absolute, is a labor of love developed over many years, which grew out of Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention in 2016, it feels less innovative than Cheng. Inspired by female fighters as disparate as Virginia Woolf’s Mulan and Orlando, it opens with the powerful image of spotlight-lit figures, each in an individual cone of light (courtesy lighting designer Joshie Harriette), raising her arms, her hands bent, like a row of statues.
As it progresses, these gripping moments continue but are never quite cohesive. The move becomes more cliché – there’s a lot of stomping, legs in wide bends, of its six-person female cast playing with wild authority. Beibei Wang’s percussions challenge Sadler’s Wells sound system with their ferocity.
The Matsena brothers – Anthony and Kel, born in Zimbabwe and brought up in Wales – fill the second half of the program with shades of blue, a bold new response to Black Lives Matter. It’s also wonderfully lit (this time by Ryan Joseph Stafford) and superbly danced with huge engagement from its cast of nine. The movement is an irresistible mix of urban and contemporary bodies, hyper flexible, falling and rising in fluid groupings, embodying authoritarian aggressors and those they attack.
At one point, the dancers seem threatened by their very surroundings, as the stage’s lighting rig collapses, pinning them squatting beneath its blue glow. At another, they stagger across the stage, from light to dark, accelerating from extreme slow motion to fast running. They fall to the ground as if shot down, then spring up as if pulled by ropes.
In the longest and most powerful section, they form a square and obey the commands of a voice shouting instructions – “Intimidate!” “Confront!” – mimic the requested actions. Suddenly, a figure – Kel Matsena – who seemed to be a leader, rapping about freedom and revolution, finds himself isolated after an impossible stream of demands at an increasing speed.
What begins as vaguely humorous becomes intensely frightening as he struggles to do the right thing, terror seeping into his limbs. Reminds me of Debbie Tucker Green ear for eye, with its haunting documentation of the impossibility for a black man to do anything to protect himself from danger. Every move is somehow bad; Matsena’s recumbent body lying on stage, even during the curtain call, is a terrible reminder of the trauma.
It is an impressive piece. The raw passion and sheer talent that propels the work makes you want to see more of both the Matsenas and the Chengs. They feel like something new.