A tear-inducing dance performance of the highest calibre

When you’ve attained something akin to artistic perfection, where do you go from there? Belfast Festival audiences are invited to join the Russell Maliphant Dance Company on that risky journey of exploration and discovery, from which one emerges thrilled, dazzled and close to tears.

The company enters the Waterfront Studio bearing a rather special gift. A year ago, Maliphant created a 15-minute solo performance entitled 'AfterLight (part 1)' for the Sadler’s Wells centenary tribute to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It received unanimously warm reviews, with some critics judging it to have come as close to perfection as could be imagined.

It has now been expanded into a 60 minute trio, the sometimes rambling dance narrative of which is kept alive by the combination of an additional new score by Andy Cowton and remarkable lighting effects crafted by Michael Hulls.

Collaboration was one of the cornerstones of Diaghilev’s legendary company and the list of artists who entered its orbit includes Picasso, Matisse, Chanel, Stravinsky, Cocteau and choreographers Fokine and Petipa. Artistic genius flourished within its own ranks through dancers like Pavlova and Markova, artist and costume designer Leon Bakst and, arguably, the greatest male dancer in history Vaslav Nijinsky.

A similar spirit of collaboration has been forged over the years between Maliphant and Hulls and it is their instinctive mutual artistry which begins and ends this unforgettable evening. They have used photographs of Nijinksy, his abstract geometric sketches and iconic performances as the visual motifs for the piece and part of the fun for the audience is in spotting those references, whether it is to Le Spectre de la Rose or the Golden Slave or the jazz-inspired Jeux, prompted by the labyrinthine relationships of the Bloomsbury Group.

'AfterLight (part 1)' fills the first 15 minutes, in which Daniel Proietto’s miraculous performance grows to a thing of startlingly mesmerising beauty. He emerges silently out of the darkness, his face in profile, the rest of him melting into a tiny spiral of light. Wearing a cream turban and scarlet tunic, his lean body arches backwards, arm uplifted with inverted wrist. The pose immediately invokes the strange, unearthly presence of Nijinsky’s faun from L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, whose spectre is never far from what is to follow.

To the haunting, delicate notes of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes, Proietto pivots and swirls through fronds of light, displaying scarcely a hint of human movement. Indeed, the lighting takes on an integral, organic role throughout the performance, at times playing the lead rather than the supporting role.

But subtly the mood changes. The turban and tunic are cast aside and we watch with growing trepidation the descent of a great artist into the darkness and confusion of schizophrenia, which was to engulf Nijinksy’s life and end his glittering career.

Cut to a dappled glade and two female dancers (Silvina Cortes and Olga Cobos) in floaty organza dresses. These surely are the ghosts of the wood nymphs from L’Apres Midi d’un Faune. And here comes that seductive faun again, with Proietto in playful mode luring first one then the other with his dangerous charms.

Cowton’s score takes over from Satie’s, occasionally echoing its themes but also introducing an hypnotic, oriental flavour with clashing cymbals and jangling plucked strings. Hulls’s lighting continues its dazzling, ever-changing course, morphing from milky clouds into bare branches, shifting metallic platforms to fast-moving whirlpools. But, in between, are sections when the choreography dips and meanders, requiring the return of Proietto to pick up pace and dramatic tension.

Wisely, Maliphant opts to end where he began, with Proietto/Nijinksy alone on stage, the lighting jagged and monochrome, reducing relentlessly to a small, fast moving disc in which this poor creature is doomed to remain trapped and confused. A heady, tear-inducing finale.