Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

Robert Cohan: The Last Guru, book review

Paul R. W. Jackson: The Last Guru: Robert Cohan’s life in dance, from Martha Graham to London contemporary dance theatre With commentary by Robert Cohan 380pp. Dance Books. £20 (US $33.95).

The dance world’s reach has always been tiny. Robert Cohan, the driving force in the understanding of contemporary dance in Britain in the twentieth century, grew up, like most people, in blissful ignorance of either classical dance or the burgeoning contemporary schools. Cohan was born in 1925 and raised in Brooklyn. His dance-life was, surprisingly, entirely a product of the US army.

He went to his first dance performance at the suggestion of army friends; he was wounded in Europe, and his months in hospital enabled an education through a well-stocked library. The girlfriend of an army buddy led him to Martha Graham’s classes; and his tiny war pension enabled him to give up a well-paid Job to attend fulltime. No General Patton, no London Contemporary Dance Theatre.

Cohan – a lover of the mystical – would have said he was destined. And in many ways it was an astonishing ascent. Within a year of his first class, he was dancing with Graham’s company; four months later, he was teaching her technique to others and studying choreography with Louis Horst, Graham’s companion and musical director. This three-stranded enterprise – teaching, choreographing and performing – was to be his raison d’être.

Cohan’s charm and leadership, now legendary in the dance world, must have been present from the beginning, as he survived two decades in the orbit of Graham, a notoriously difficult character. A break of five years, in which he cemented his teaching reputation, choreographed and ran his own small dance company intervened, before he returned once more to the fold, in time for a tour to the UK, and a meeting with Robin Howard. Howard was a Graham fanatic, and was determined to bring contemporary dance teaching and performing to the UK. The man suggested by Graham was Cohan.

Difficult and by now alcoholic though Graham might have been, she was also right. The first performance by Cohan’s London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) took place less than a year after his arrival, and the important British dancers and choreographers – including Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston – who studied with him are legion.

Despite this astonishing success, however, much of his life was a tangle of wrangles with the Arts Council, which acted as censorious paymaster, unable ever quite to decide what it wanted. First, it wanted a company that produced artistically challenging works; then it quavered that the work was too “difficult” for “the provinces”, and what it really wanted was bigger audiences; then it withdrew support from those who produced the unchallenging work that drew in these audiences. It makes for dispiriting reading, as does the backstory of Robin Howard, who cheerfully pauperized himself to make up for the government’s lack of support, before being ousted in a boardroom coup encouraged and admired by the Council. Cohan’s later years, therefore, were spent only partly in Britain; he also worked as artistic adviser to the Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv (founded by one of Graham’s very earliest supporters), and in teaching and choreographic endeavours.

Paul R. W. Jackson’s decision to tell Cohan’s story entirely chronologically provides a number of challenges. Cohan’s choreographic output was large – nearly seventy works – and at times the chapters have an “and then … and then” feel to them. A thematic approach would have allowed the author to show the development of the choreographer, from his more formal, austere earlier pieces, to his later, more lyrical period. There would also, crucially, have been space to discuss Cohan’s ideas. We are told he was attracted to the mystical, and was a reader of George Gurdjieff and Jiddu Krishnamurti among others, but we gain little understanding of how that reading translated into his work.

In fact, there is almost no attempt to get inside Cohan’s head and discover what he was thinking. His decision to work in Apartheid era South Africa, despite the cultural boycott of the country, is given exactly the same amount of space – two lines – as his “truly extraordinary” experience on a wildlife safari on his way home. His private life, too, barely rates a mention – we gather that he had a penchant for troubled, addicted men, but there is no attempt to look at what that might mean. Each chapter ends with a page or so of comment from Cohan, who read the manuscript after it was finished. At one point he says, “those ten years [with Graham] … were the happiest and most fulfilling of my life”, which comes as a surprise after Jackson’s chapter of trauma, slog and poor working conditions. But there is no way, in the structure Jackson has chosen, to address these competing stories.

Jackson’s belief in Cohan’s achievement is admirable, and, for those who have seen his work, entirely Justified. To name but a few examples: Eclipse is an extraordinary theatrical, dramatic piece that turns white-hot emotion into pure icy geometry; Cell’s universality, its theme being the mind imprisoned by the man, has been demonstrated over its nearly half-century of life; and in Class, Cohan did for contemporary dance what the défilés of the Paris Opéra do for ballet, laying bare the spatial arrangements, musical organization and formal composition that underlie Graham’s work.

It is dispiriting, therefore, that Jackson constantly reduces this genuine admiration to an aggrieved arguing back at critics long gone. Yes, it’s a shame that John Percival of The Times did not find Cohan to his taste. No, we do not need a quarter-century-old derogatory review from the Kilburn Times resuscitated so that we can be told why it is wrong. Cohan’s achievement was to enable an entire art form to flourish. That will survive. His best works will survive. That is what art is, in the end – what survives. The rest is howling into the wind.

Reviewed in the TLS, 10 January 2014

Don Q and Dracula, Royal Ballet and Mark Bruce Company



Double visions

Should anyone need an object lesson in archetype vs stereotype, the dip back into the nineteenth century performed by these two radically different companies could scarcely be bettered as an example.

Potential dance audiences tend to be gun-shy, skittering at unfamiliar titles or mixed bills. The old favourites – Swan Lake, Giselle – still attract the most people, to the despair of artistic directors and devotees alike. So drawing on titles familiar from other contexts is a way of making audiences feel safe when booking tickets, while allowing creativity to flourish.

With Just ten dancers, the Mark Bruce Company’s production of Dracula packs a punch far beyond its weight. Bruce’s choreography more generally could perhaps be called “psycho-dance”, exploring as it does the emotion of movement and the movement of emotion. Previously Bruce has sometimes seemed undisciplined, his work running off at tangents, but adapting Bram Stoker’s bitty, epistolary novel has allowed him to focus this tendency into a virtue.

He has chosen his collaborators wisely: Phil Eddolls’s overwrought irony of a set wittily gestures towards period without any attempt at authenticity; Guy Hoare’s almost velvet lighting is a character in its own right; and Pickled Image’s creepily effective masks provide some of the show’s highlights – the wolves baying around Dracula in the opening will long linger in my mind.

At the production’s core is the reliably wonderful Jonathan Goddard. Long a stellar dancer, he has also grown in psychological intensity with every new role. His long, lugubrious face is tailor-made for the Transylvanian, allowing him to be at once both shamelessly predatory and tormented by his animal desires.

It is this double nature that lifts Dracula above stereotype and into archetype. Stoker created an Other who walks among us, the outwardly respectable frock-coated gent who will rip out a heart and eat it as casually as he hails a cab.

In Bruce’s grey-on-black world, it is, in particular, sexual doubleness that fascinates and lures, as Kristin McGuire’s limpid Lucy Westenra trades the tame adoration of her suitors (presented in 1930s music-hall style) for Dracula’s bloody dance of death. Not for Bruce the camp accretions of a century of adaptations. This Dracula brings fresh blood to slavering audiences.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet too has returned to the nineteenth century to look for a crowd-pleaser. The decision to mount a new production of Don Quixote is at first surprising.

In the past twenty years they have staged two failed productions of what is ostensibly Petipa’s classic of 1869 (which has in reality only survived in fragments, through a heavily revised 1900 staging by Alexander Gorsky).

However Carlos Acosta, the Royal’s star of many years, cut his teeth on Don Quixote in his native Cuba, and it has been his calling card when guesting elsewhere, so it is likely that his was the guiding desire here when deciding what to stage for his first production at the Royal.

The ballet itself – a demented mash-up of Imperial Russian choreography, Austro-Hungarian oompah-fest score, and late nineteenth-century ethnic caricatures – is pure stereotype, not archetype, and as such will never fit neatly with the British passion for theatrical realism. This is surprisingly deep-rooted in the classical dance world, and British dancers can’t ever quite bring themselves to click their castanets, shout olé (and Acosta has his dancers really shouting) or even perform the famous rocking-horse jetés (back leg snapping up to the head) without adding a raised eyebrow to signal ironic distance from the piece’s sheer silliness.

The plot focuses on a tiny episode from Cervantes’ novel, about a barber and his love, while the Don and Sancho Panza merely wander through. Acosta handles the absence of motivation as well as possible, and indeed the further he gets from the traditional staging, the more assured he is. Act I, which is almost all plot set-up, only intermittently and very unevenly interrupted by dance, is a long haul, whereas in the second act, in the gypsy encampment, Acosta’s interpolations, such as the flamenco jam session, are charming.

Here he also gives Basilio (Acosta) and Kitri (Marianela Nuñez) some character development, which they clearly relish. Nuñez has long been cast as a soubrette, which is mystifying: she is, true, both small and neat, with a great bouncy jeté, all aspects of value in soubrette roles. But she is also a dancer of formidable attack and intelligence, neither of which have much place in a stamp-and-pout part. “Feisty” is a word applied usually to women – women who speak their minds are “feisty”, whereas men who speak their minds are just men. Nuñez is indeed “feisty”, in that her dancing says straightforwardly what she thinks, with no beating around the bush. Would that such straightforwardness no longer had to be wrapped up in a veneer of cuteness for it to be considered acceptable.

Other elements of the evening are similarly tame. The West End designer (Spamalot, Shrek) Tim Hatley’s first act has a muted pastel palette. The day-glo sunset of the gypsy encampment and the surreal giant flowers of the vision scene see him at his most effective, but his dance inexperience shows in the frantically bustling houses and windmills. Dance doesn’t need moving scenery; dance is moving scenery.

The Mark Bruce Company knows this in its bones. It may be that having only a tiny fraction of the resources of the Opera House forces creators like Bruce to imaginative heights they would not otherwise reach. Two scenes – Jonathan Harker (Christopher Tandy) in the Transylvanian tavern, and Dracula’s final chase, surrounded by wolves – show how skilled Bruce is at handling larger groups of dancers. One longs to see what this company could do with a quarter of the resources spent on Don Quixote – or maybe just the budget for the castanets.

English National Ballet/National Ballet of Canada

Marketing leaves nothing untouched in the twenty-first century. Tamara Rojo, the newly appointed director of English National Ballet, knows this well and proficiently plays the game. Thus for her first piece of programming, she has linked three works by an overarching title, appearing to give coherence to an evening that in reality has little.

Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991) has the full panoply of Kylián tics dancegoers have come to expect: gorgeous lighting (by Kylián and Joop Caboort), coups de théâtre (a bronze sheet snapped over an empty stage, then peeled back to reveal the dancers) and lyricism combined with a weighty, muscular attack in a series of splayed, legs-wide pas de deux and ensembles. As the curtain rises, six men dextrously manipulate fencing rapiers, obvious symbols for the phalluses implicit in the work’s title, before they are replaced by six women, shrouded by black ballgowns on castors, which frame and constrict them. The heavy-handed symbolism, combined with the music (two slow movements ripped from different Mozart piano concertos), creates a sense of slick stylishness, leaving the viewer by the end feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Études, by Harald Lander, has been a company standard since 1955, racking up nearly 800 performances. It too concentrates on style over substance, although in more literal fashion as the company works its way through a formalized version of every dancer’s daily class, beginning with pliés at the barre, through centre-practice, turns and jumps. The music, Carl Czerny’s piano exercises for students (orchestrated by Knudåge Riisager), is also that of pedagogy rather than performance. Yet Lander takes these two plunkingly mundane elements and transcends their form by creating a meditation on the virtuosity of the everyday. Études can certainly be read merely as a party piece, a gala show of bravura. But it has lasted because it examines how performers build public personas out of private endeavour. The piece requires enormous technical achievement from its three leads, which was only intermittently present (Vadim Muntagirov alone acquitted himself with honour), but as a measure of where a company stands at any moment, it is revealing – perhaps excessively so.

Nicolas le Riche, a guest artist from Paris Opéra Ballet, can also find virtuosity in the everyday, and his star wattage made short work of Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a nominally existential examination of love and death. A young man (le Riche) waits for his lover (Rojo); she is alternately indifferent and beguiling, luring him to suicide. When she reappears in a skull mask, she is death itself. It was hokum in 1946, in warracked Europe; it is hokum now, but le Riche dances it with raw passion and meticulous technique, an admirable and rarely achieved combination. Rojo, as company director, had no one to tell her to tone herself down: she was therefore sexy without producing any sense of foreboding, not ideal for the personification of death.

At Sadler’s Wells, the National Ballet of Canada made its first London appearance in twenty-six years, with Alexei Ratmansky’s new version of Romeo and Juliet. Ratmansky is one of the most acclaimed choreographers working at the moment (his first work for the Royal Ballet was reviewed in the TLS on March 8), and he is a rarity in the current dance world in that he has substantial experience of choreographing narrative ballets. Dance versions of Romeo and Juliet tend to focus either on the central love story or on the warring worlds of Capulet and Montague. (Kenneth MacMillan’s version manages to combine both threads, one reason it has become the standard production across the world.) Ratmansky removes the social context of the play almost entirely, giving us Verona-lite, with only a dozen or so townspeople, who remain undifferentiated. The sets, by Richard Hudson, are similarly neutral, relying on simple blocks of Renaissancefresco colours to convey place and time, although his costumes tip from simplicity into caricature, with the corps women in their striped dresses seeming to have wandered in from a production of Oklahoma!

And unfortunately, caricature prevails. Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi, and was briefly its director, and the plot and acting follow the Bolshoi’s melodramatic silent-film style: there are visions of future events told in a sort of split-screen effect; an old-fashioned tableau ending; and the drama is conveyed by much shaking of fists and pointing fingers miming “Go, and never darken my doors again!”.

As Romeo, Guillaume Côté, a wonderful dancer, manages to shake all this off, his youthful ardour and lovely springy step elucidating with devastating ease Ratmansky’s delicate skeins of beaten turns and fleeting changes of direction. His Juliet, Heather Ogden, a pleasant but less nuanced dancer, by contrast appears prim rather than ardent: we never see her carried away, and can’t quite work out why she doesn’t just settle for Paris.

Like this Juliet, the ballet itself has no overarching rush of ardour, or even drama, to match Prokofiev’s score. It is instead a series of set pieces, often beautiful, but never emotionally engaging. The trios for Romeo and his friends (Piotr Stanczyk turning Mercutio into high camp, and Robert Stephen as Benvolio) are the most balletically achieved moments of the evening, their joyous camaraderie finally finding expression in the choreography rather than in mime.

Ultimately, Ratmansky’s sophisticated step-building never manages to eradicate a sense of earnestness and sincerity that infuses the production. These are both positive attributes, but they are not remotely suitable to the subject at hand.

Lindsay Seers: Nowhere Less Than Now

Good art shows us what we see; great art makes the invisible visible, illuminating what we otherwise fail to notice. The Tin Tabernacle in north-west London, temporarily housing the latest commission by the art charity Artangel, is an architectural example of the visibly invisible. Built in 1863, it is a Victorian version of an Ikea flatpack, a corrugated iron hut that was erected while the local Methodist congregation raised funds for a permanent home. Somehow that never happened, and in 1947 the Willesden and St Marylebone Sea Cadets moved in, refitting the interior as a Royal Navy ship c.1950, complete with an anti-aircraft gun, and a wardroom where signs sternly demand, “Are you correctly dressed?”. In the chapel itself, the installation artist Lindsay Seers has turned nave into navy, building an upturned hull in which, twenty-five at a time, visitors watch a dream-imaged film projected on to two balls, one concave, one convex: two all-seeing eyes which, magus-like, stubbornly refuse to give up their secrets.

In the 2009 Tate Triennial Altermodern (reviewed in the TLS, February 6, 2009), Seers’s “Extramission 6 (Black Maria)” was a triumphant blend of documentary and confessional, a precisely calibrated blurring of boundaries between the artist and artwork, revolving around an almost pathological compulsion to record. That same compulsion, now on a larger canvas (and with slightly less impact as a result), permeates Nowhere Less Now.

Seers’s starting point is her great-uncle, a sailor with the Royal Navy named George Edwards, who was stationed off the coast of Zanzibar in an attempt to blockade slave trading at the end of the nineteenth century. A few faded photographs of him have survived, and one of his wife Georgina, who wears a dress covered with Masonic symbols. From these fragments of information, the artist imagines a future where all records have been destroyed, where photographs are outlawed, and everything is recorded as it occurs. She also conjures a future “George Edwards” to guide her. Her search becomes a filmic collage of historical photographs, modern travelogue, mysterious abstract shapes, old-style film-lettering and countdown numbers, and Seers herself in various guises, from researcher to historical recreationist to, well, seer.

Lacking the mesmeric quality of “Extramission”, the film is nonetheless hypnotically beautiful, even if, at forty minutes and without a narrative arc, the viewer’s attention can flag. And the verbal side, as so often with conceptual art, can be slack. Seers’s future George Edwards is on the run, vaguely “involved in crime”; while “in order to think about” her ancestors the artist dresses up as them and travels to Africa. Visitors leave with a 200-page paperback (produced with Ole Hagen), theoretically an elaboration of Seers’s themes, although I’m uncertain what sentences like “Normal trace-apps draw out image-links of all the people with a specific name and give you a short morph-file, which in turn gives you a moving image calculation on the most common morphlogs that person is using” mean.

Seers’s search encompasses everything from family history websites to heterochromia – the condition of having two different- coloured eyes, which her narrator claims is caused by one in-utero twin engulfing its pair (my subsequent reading suggests more mundane causes). In Zanzibar she finds the words “George” and “Dragon” (the name of her uncle’s ship) carved into a tree, and believes these have survived a century, ignoring the pragmatic inner voice that suggests neither George nor its link to a dragon is exactly rare. She conducts a blood sacrifice of a chicken (thankfully unseen) in mock-Masonic rig. She goes to Dar-es-Salaam for no better reason than that it is a place with many corrugated tin buildings, although the link to tin is not George’s but hers, and Artangel’s. But logic, and links, are not the point. The endless quest for an unnamed something is Seers’s mode, and the purpose of her images is precisely to remain forever unrevealed.

Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun, Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) was one of the most successful of the Tate’s Turbine Hall grands projets. Two million people came to stare at Eliasson’s big sun, many sprawling beneath the installation as though it really were a sun and the Tate had suddenly transformed itself into a public park. This is Eliasson’s gift: his art is incomplete until it elicits a physical response from viewers. With Little Sun, viewers carry individual “little suns” – 11cm daffodil-yellow flowershaped plastic lamps strung from lanyards – and walk around a specially opened gallery after dark, their “sun” picking out each artwork.

The lamps become our eyes. No longer passive, we are forced physically to engage with the works in front of us. No longer can we automatically find the best viewing spot in front of a work. We must make conscious decisions – caption or painting? – about things we rarely think about in daylight.

The space the Tate has chosen is its Surrealism galleries, where pieces like Joseph Beuys’s Campaign Bed, or Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1979) – all 5 metres of charcoal drawings and stuffed birds – can no longer be encompassed in one glance: viewers must establish, section by section, the artists’ intentions. (And if the artists intended that their work be encompassed in one glance, well, that too must be pieced together.) That is Eliasson’s intention, at any rate. The Tate has, however, underestimated how much light the lamps cast, and overestimated how many people each room can hold and still remain dark. When I entered on the first blackout night, although the warder told me to turn on my lamp, there was no need: the number of lamps already lit meant that I could not only see the art, but even read the captions, with ease. Thus can artistic aims be subverted by practicalities.

Mundane necessities such as ticket sales or health and safety often win over art in contemporary galleries. The Weather Project was a simple concept, perfectly realized. By contrast, the execution of Little Sun is closer to Ai Weiwei’s notorious Sunflower Seeds (2010), where millions of porcelain seeds were spread across the Turbine Hall. There, too, visitors were supposed to interact with the piece as they walked across the crunching seeds. Then, when it was discovered that this was releasing toxic dust, the seeds were corralled behind barriers, like those public parks with “Do not walk on the grass” signs.

Eliasson’s  has a second intention, and a more important one. The 1.6 billion people worldwide who live without access to electricity pay on average 300 times more for their light than we do. These solar-powered lamps provide ten times more light than the kerosene lamps most people are forced to rely on, at one-tenth of the cost. Kerosene, as well as being a fire hazard, produces emissions which are the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. And so Eliasson established a business, the Little Sun company with the engineer Frederick Ottesen to create safer, less costly renewable artificial lighting.

Few are more fervent than I in the belief that art fills an essential need. Yet however fervent that belief, some things are more important than going to a gallery on a Saturday night. If Olafur Eliasson can enlighten those of us who have time and resources to devote to art, well and good; but if he can literally enlighten places of darkness, that must be more valuable.

Royal Ballet Triple Bill (Royal Opera House)

The Royal Ballet is frequently criticized for playing safe, relying too heavily on its tried-and-trusted crowd-pleasing three-acters. This very mixed bill, therefore, reads as outgoing director Monica Mason’s riposte.

In terms of achievement, Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, returning to Opera House nearly a decade after it was first performed here, takes the laurels. Its homage to Balanchine, and, more particularly, to Agon, was obvious from the start: as Balanchine worked with the then-considered-difficult Stravinsky, so Wheeldon takes Ligeti as his muse; as Balanchine opened with a piece of four-square classicism, so does Wheeldon. Yet while Wheeldon’s Balanchinean ability to create order and space was always visible, what predominates now is a mood of gentleness, especially in the person of Leanne Benjamin, tiny but formidable, imperious but serene, who carves shapes from air.

But the audience was waiting for the two premieres, Sweet Violets by in-house golden boy Liam Scarlett, still in his mid-twenties, and Carbon Life by Wayne McGregor, the company’s resident choreographer.

McGregor, a modern-dance choreographer, has worked with the Royal since 2006, and his style is well-known: hip-popping dislocations, knotted, kinetic partnerings and sky-high hyper-extensions, all frequently set to music that at first hearing seems to have little to do with the lithe goings-on in front. Here it was literally in front, as a roster of headline-grabbing names from the contemporary music scene performed behind the dancers: music by Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, performed by Ronson with Boy George, Hero Fisher, Alison Mosshart and Black Cobain, among others.

All well and good, but the string of songs gives McGregor little to work with as the linear nature of the songs prevents any sense of dramatic development, while Gareth Pugh’s eye-opening costumes – unisex black drawers, S&M-style masks, Holy Week capirotes, finned gauntlets and leggings – are merely a distraction. Many claim that McGregor has created an entirely new dance language. I question, however, how much he has to say in it. In UnDance, created with artist Mark Wallinger crucially acting as dramaturg, his work had a focus that Carbon Life lacks.

The more interesting debut, Sweet Violets, Scarlett’s first foray into narrative dance-theatre, suffered from the opposite problem: too many ideas, too much to say, all of it tumbling out.

His starting-point is painter Walter Sickert’s rendering of the 1907 murder of Emily Dimmock, a prostitute (Leanne Cope), for which an artist named Robert Wood was tried. Four years ago the Cortauld displayed Sickert’s four paintings and his drawings and prints on the subject, and Sweet Violets captures absolutely their thick, threatening atmosphere.

In Scarlett’s version, Wood (Thiago Soares) is a friend of Sickert (Johan Kobborg), who in turn has been made art-tutor to Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Eddy (Federico Bonelli). While in Sickert’s care the prince marries a prostitute (Laura Morera, in the role of her career), who, after giving birth, is incarcerated in an asylum, while her friend, Mary Jane Kelly (Alina Cojocaru), in reality Jack the Ripper’s last victim, is murdered to preserve the reputation of the royal family.

Scarlett admits in the programme the seriously implausible nature of this story, but onstage his skills nonetheless make this preposterous fluff dramatically compelling: 1888 and 1907 merge in Sickert’s mind, leaving open how much is reality, how much Sickert’s morbid fantasy of past events as the Ripper (Steven McRae at his most unnerving) remains ever-present, the artist’s evil genius.

Scarlett’s dance language in this piece bears a close resemblance to Kenneth MacMillan in Mayerling or Anastasia mode. Yet there is much that is original, too, in the younger choreographer’s movement and ideas, and all is unified by his supremely delicate musical response to Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégiaque. John Macfarlane has produced one of his most nuanced sets, creating (with David Finn’s bravura lighting) a drab, shadowy world where bloody happenings occur in corners, before opening out into a Sickertian music-hall of tarnished glitter, seen from backstage in a splendidly vertiginous coup de théâtre.

It is understandable that a choreographer producing his first narrative work feels the need to explain. Scarlett’s talent is such, however, that he need not. With the unnecessary historical exposition scenes deleted, Sweet Violets will be a desperate, terrifying and exhilarating tour de force.