How did we get here? at Sadler’s Wells review – Mel C brings gravity to her contemporary dance debut

 (Camilla Greenwell)
(Camilla Greenwell)

Mel C became famous as Sporty but was also perhaps the most dancey of the Spice Girls. Even so, teaming up with serious contemporary choreographer Julie Cunningham is a bold move.

Melanie Chisholm, to name her fully, doesn’t simply coast on her charisma. Much of the audience sits close on the Sadler’s Wells stage, an exposing environment for a contemporary dance debut.

Hair braided in a tight horseshoe, Chisholm seems solemn and committed. Her body, which once punched and sashayed over arena stages, now appears vulnerable, swaying in the harsh light. She ripples an arm, folds down to the floor. She gives the evening its gravity, if not its grace.

Chisholm joins two of the most eloquent bodies in British dance. Harry Alexander, monumentally tall, has the wingspan of an unusually hench albatross. Cunningham (who uses they/them pronouns) is fragile but sculptural, and performed with American dance legend Merce Cunningham (no relation) and iconoclastic Michael Clark. It’s some pedigree.

Cunningham’s own questing work includes an incandescent solo to Stravinksy’s Firebird which recently played Sadler’s Wells’ studio theatre. This main house show nonetheless feels intimate – I’d recommend sitting on the stage (also, when will you ever get this close to a Spice Girl?).

 (Camilla Greenwell)
(Camilla Greenwell)

As the title suggests, “how did we get here?” is a contemplative hour – don’t look for zigazig-ah. The floor is black and shiny as an oil sump, light hitting the bare stage in chilly whites and blues. In sleek catsuits by BodyMap designer Stevie Stewart, the dancers must create their own comfort in this cold corner of the universe. A little tribe of three, they probe their place in the world – a heavy task, leavened only by each other’s company.

Wannabe, the Spice Girls’ breakthrough hit, unexpectedly leapt to mind – this show too becomes a hymn to friendship, if markedly less raucous. A protective impulse hums between the trio – they exchange steadfast glances and reassuring smiles, and capped their curtain call with a sweet group hug.

At every turn, they choose kindness. In a central sequence Chisholm and Alexander hold each other tight under the glitterball to Janis Ian’s song Stars, which segues into snarling chords from Cunningham’s electric guitar. As a frowning Cunningham strums and frets, Alexander moves behind to cradle both the dancer and instrument, soothing their disquiet.

There are no Spiceworld bangers here – the soundworld is an electronic throb by Wibke Tiarks, cut with pensive songs by Nina Simone and Janis Ian. To Dido’s Lament by Purcell, Cunningham kneels in stippled blue light then rises into a pose like a dramatic tomb sculpture, even as Dido sings about fading into memory. This show treasures companionship but squares up to lonely mortality – whatever the Girls once sang, we won’t viva forever.

Sadler’s Wells, to January 29;