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Photos by Rambert & Sadlers Wells

I encountered Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” through a group of 15-year old students who had been given part of the piece to study, adapt and perform as coursework for a dance exam.

Their teacher had “gone sick” and I had been called in to complete and grade the project. I had seen videos, and knew about the work but had not seen or thought about it. It had not been performed for more than ten years. Created in 1991 as a sequence of eight “courtship dances” set to iconic Rolling Stones tracks, it is famous as a portrayal of “the swinging sixties” with a sub-text of the battle between the sexes.

I asked the group to show me their work so far. I saw sharp, stylised movements set to “Paint it Black”. They had plenty of energy, and were faithfully copying what they had seen on YouTube, but they lacked enthusiasm and confidence. We talked. It soon became clear that they did not “get it” at all. I was shocked that most of them did not know anything about the Rolling Stones and they had no sense at all of the freedom and joy that the music represented. The liberation we felt in the sixties and early seventies, as we tried to re-invent ourselves and it looked as if it might be possible for things to change, meant nothing to them. They had never experienced anything like that. They live in a world of many possibilities, but these are fragmented. The idea that a Rock Band, even a great one like the Stones, could change the world seemed ridiculous to them, though they could understand that music and the style that went with it could mean a great deal to an individual or small group and make a difference to them.

Although I was tempted to launch a crash course in cultural history, there was no time. We settled for some quick study of fashion, music and dance of the day and worked very hard on the demands of the dance itself. They relaxed, worked hard and did very well.

By complete chance, about a year after this, I was asked to review a performance of “Rooster” which had been revived as part of a triple bill by Rambert.

This is a wonderful piece of choreography, and was brilliantly performed. Instantly entertaining and completely accessible, it is also choreographically sophisticated and layered. Character is built through a whole series of apparent “throw-aways”. In the clever and speedy changes of formation two of the macho men find themselves dancing together instead of with the girls. They are clearly horrified, but suddenly shrug and carry on. In a split second and without a word said, there is a detailed essay about changes in attitudes, a willingness to experiment and be someone new and a sense that old certainties are being reinvented.

The girls appear at first to be the passive recipients of the men’s intricate posturing, but are really effortlessly superior and completely in charge. One girl winds  one of the men up into such a frenzy of style and display that his friends have to carry him away, still repeating his best moves. In the picture, a man “struts his stuff” ending with a dominant pose, finger outstretched, and after the briefest of pauses, the girl reaches up and twists it for him to collapse in agony.

Running through the piece, of course, is an underlying movement language which portrays the men as preening roosters – arranging their feathers, strutting, stretching their necks and seeking the top of the pecking order. I once saw a painting which showed a flock of chickens, all of whom were somehow recognisable as teachers in the staffroom of the girls’ school whose wall it adorned. This was probably the most subversive and satirical, if affectionate, work of art I have ever seen. In more general, social, terms Rooster takes the same idea and plays with it, making satirical, but affectionate, comments about all of us.

Meeting and exploring this piece has been exhilarating. It is a great dance work and a definite “must see”.