RULE OF THREE at Sadler’s Wells

  • Photography  Fumi Homma
  • Words  James Ross

There is an intimate connection and heritage between the primal beat of the drum in how it provides the pulse and rhythm to a dancer’s movements. The collision of hands and feet on surfaces link the performer in a symbiotic, creative relationship to the instrument that provides the background to emergent Belgian choreographer, Jan Martens’, latest work RULE OF THREE. Martens’ style is typically one of minimalism and ambiguity with the aim of testing the nature of performance in relation to the audience, however, this concept is being pushed to its limits with the inclusion of live music provided by acclaimed drummer, NAH. The fraught, calamitous layers of sound that draw inspiration from jazz, punk, rock and hip hop are utilised to draw the audience into the performance, as though they are in a club. Martens’ choreography then tells the story, further immersing the viewer as though lost in the pages of a book as dancers move from scene to scene in quick succession in line with the disjointed changes of music.

We spoke with Jan and Michael about their collaboration and how they worked in synergy to develop RULE OF THREE, which was recently performed at Sadler’s Wells.

How did this collaboration come about – who instigated the process and what was the main reason behind it?

NAH: Jan found my music on the internet somewhere and got in touch.

Jan: I was hooked. I started to research a bit on what I thought was a band, and then found out it was a one man project. His music spoke to me because it was something I had never heard, it sounded a bit as Steve Reich meets Einsturzende Neubaute – very rough, violent, haunting and beautiful at the same time. I saw he had made a lot of really short tracks, all with very different vibes. I had the idea to make a piece about how our attention span becomes shorter and shorter, and how we jump from one thing to another in today’s information driven society, which really worked with his style.


This performance focussed on three dancers. What other origins are there to the name “RULE OF THREE” and what insights do you intend to provide the audience through this title?

Jan: I hope that the title brings associations to something strict, something formal – as a rule. The show is constructed out of very different forms, very different languages. The dancers have to change very quickly from one vibe to another; they have to fit themselves again and again into a little format.

The number three also relates to the relationship between sound, light and movement. All of which three take an equally important role in this performance.

How does this collaboration aim to enhance the qualities of your choreographic and performance styles?

Jan: The brutalism of his music forced me to go very clear in my movement proposals. NAH was there during the whole process, which gave us the time to slowly build slowly to what the show became in the in the end. NAH works very fast: he could see in a glimpse of a movement section what the vibe was, and would proposed a track or rhythm section that led me again to further fine-tune the choreography. I would say it was a constant negotiating, but in a good way: my movement proposals influenced his work, which influenced again the way the choreographic material would develop and so on and on.

NAH: For me this was a new experience and an exercise in working outside of my little creative bubble. Performance wise, I’m really just doing what I usually do. Hitting the drums and zoning out.

How does live music present opportunities and challenges during a live dance performance?

NAH: I suppose the music provides an energy that allows the dancers to tap into something that wouldn’t be possible with a track or with no sound at all.

Jan: The opportunity and the challenge are quite the same: to be able to react in the moment, to modify slightly and to see music and dance adapt to each other makes it very exciting.

It makes it exciting for everybody I think: for the audience, for the musician, and for the dancers, because it is created in the here and now. Musicians and dancers pump each other up. His energy frees their energy, and together the free energy becomes even bigger. With each performance and this energy gets bigger and bigger, which is great to see.

There are themes of duality and contrast in this work, which is something we often explore in PYLOT. How do you think this impacts on the audience’s experience?

Jan: I think it impacts in very different ways, depending who’s in the audience. Sometimes it hooks you in, sometimes it throws you out. Our brains have become so adaptable to this gigantic stream of information that is coming at us, it digests so fast. So for me it was very important – in contrast to my previous works that were more around slow transformation to suck an audience’s attention in – to create very clear cuts, to go without warning form one vibe to another.

Is there a particular response you are aiming to provoke from the audience?

Jan: For RULE OF THREE I wanted to research and translate the short concentration span we have nowadays, and our capability to jump from one atmosphere to another. We click from a cute cat video, to a tragic news item, to a presidential tweet and our brain is processing that so quickly. Sometimes I feel it brings us and society into a very scattered and fragmented way of living. The performance is like a Facebook wall, going fast through very different items without any logical connection, except for the fact that they are all coming from the same place, in this case the theatre.

One of the aims is to make an audience reflect on that, on the way that technologic information is taking over, but also about how we as humans now connect. Where has the physicality gone? It’s easier to meet on an app than in real life.

What is it about the relationship between the nightclub environment – an inherently shared, social experience – versus the concept of self-immersion in a book that inspired this performance?

Jan: It speaks about the versatility of our minds. I think we are a generation that wants a lot: to party hard and then disappear the next day into nature. Through technology that has been made possible. It has become so easy to change environment.

How does the physicality and energy of drumming integrate into the overall story that is being told?

Jan: NAH is a very physical drummer. His musical performance became a very big thing. He really disappears in his music; he throws himself completely into it and so it really infects the dancers as well. That physical presence integrates into the piece, but not so much as inserting into the dance medium – more of an energetic exchange. So the dancers stay dancers, and the musician stays the musician.

There is something quite primal about the combined use of drums and dance that is evocative of human history. Was the use of the drum, in particular, a significant factor in how the performance evolved?

Jan: The drum is very much there, and NAH hits it very hard. So it’s presence gets multiplied. The staccato sound infects the movement of the dancers. The staccato way of moving most of the time is a direct translation of the drums and at the same time it also reflects how we don’t connect things anymore: on a Facebook wall or news site everything is presented as equally important, and actually there is no logic in that.

If you like Sadler’s Wells then you will appreciate ‘Hunted’ by Maud Le Pladec and Okwui Okpokwasili, which finishes tonight, at the Lilian Bayliss Studio.