DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Posted: July 17th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on DANSOX Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford

Dansox Inaugural Summer School, St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, July 6-8

Dansox Summer School
Nicolas Lancret’s Mlle. Camargue dancing

The inaugural DANSOX Summer School, curated by Professor Sue Jones over a three-day weekend at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, brought together scholars, authors, critics and practitioners to share their knowledge of dance as a language on a multitude of levels. Alastair Macaulay, former chief dance critic of the New York Times, anchored each daily session with a talk about a major influence on our dance heritage — Marius Petipa, George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham respectively — illustrated with extensive video footage. As a dance critic of long standing, Macaulay approached each body of work with a perspective that was rich in historical detail and, in the case of Cunningham, personal association. His interpretations were the fruit of repeated viewings and reflection, while he filled out the lives of their creators and interpreters with a propensity for vibrant and often amusing anecdotes. The broad canvas he painted each morning set the tone for the sessions that followed. 

After Macaulay’s lecture on Petipa, historian Moira Goff gave a talk on and a demonstration of baroque dance. While classical ballet steps (and their terms) derive from the French court, Goff displayed the form and dynamics of those steps from Feuillet’s notation, and how they developed from France to the English Restoration stage. She not only gave clues to the form of a performance from this era but showed how these origins of classical ballet technique lead us inexorably to Petipa’s vocabulary in the late nineteenth century. 

Researcher and author Julia Bührle provided more historical detail in her talk on two important dancing masters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, John Weaver in England and Jean-Georges Noverre in France. Each wrote a treatise that legitimized ballet d’action in terms of literary sources and Bührle cites Weaver’s 1717 spectacle, The Loves of Mars and Venus, and Noverre’s 1763 Medée et Jason as the forerunners of narrative ballet. 

Bringing us into the twentieth century, filmmaker Lynne Wake introduced her documentary, Queen and Béjart: Ballet For Life. Béjart took his choreographic inspiration from the music of Queen to celebrate the lives of those like Jorge Donn and Freddie Mercury who had died young as a result of AIDS. The documentary combines rehearsals by Béjart Ballet Lausanne (an outstanding cast directed by Gil Roman) with outtakes from 1997 footage by David Mallett of the first performance of Ballet For Life in Paris. Wake’s documentary is moving in both its filming and its editing (by Christopher Bird), and shows how the lineage of classical ballet has evolved from the confines of a royal court to a vast public arena.

Each day followed a similar pattern of synaptic sparks tying all the talks and demonstrations together. After Macaulay’s lecture on Balanchine, musicologist and dance researcher Renata Bräuninger gave an incisive talk on Balanchine’s musicality followed by Gabriela Minden’s exploration of Tamara Karsarvina’s experiment in gestural choreography (harking back to Weaver and Noverre) for J.M. Barrie’s 1920 play The Truth about the Russian Dancers, and by Maggie Watson’s paper on aspects of the pastoral in Sir Frederick Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe

While each talk revealed how much historical and theoretical research on dance is still waiting in the wings, Susie Crow offered a practical approach to the history and theory of the ballet class with the help of pianist Jonathan Still and dancers Ben Warbis and Ellie Ferguson of Yorke Dance Project. This vital focus on balletic training is linked to current teaching practice, which in turn drives the future direction of classical ballet. Keeping on the subject of practice, Jennifer Jackson and composer Tom Armstrong organised a workshop with dancers Courtney Reading and Gabrielle Orr on Sleeping Beauty, showing how their contemporary approach to both classical choreography and its musical score can generate a fresh interest in such iconic works. 

Following two talks by Fiona Macintosh and Tom Sapsford that linked dance and the classics, the final day continued with Macaulay’s lecture on Cunningham, and Sir Richard Alston’s demonstration, with dancer Elly Braund, of his relationship to Cunningham’s choreography throughout his dance career and in subsequent dances he created on his own company. The notion of classicism in dance was a theme throughout the DANSOX summer school and it concluded where it began with that most ‘classical’ of choreographers, Petipa. On hand was author and former dance critic, Nadine Meisner, to celebrate the launch of her Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master, ‘the first biography in English of this monumental figure of ballet history’, published appropriately by Oxford University Press. 


Politics, Performance and Ethics

Posted: November 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Conference | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Politics, Performance and Ethics

Politics, Performance and Ethics, Aberystwyth, November 7, 2014

Pablo Picasso's Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937

In the latter part of 2014 I was performing in a production by Darshan Singh Bhuller and Lindsay Butcher called Rites of War. Before a show in Aberystwyth I was invited to participate in a presentation around themes of war and performance, to which I contributed this text that I re-discovered recently. 

As Remembrance Day approaches I am conscious we commemorate not those politicians who sleepwalked us into the war (to use a phrase from the title of Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the first world war) but those who suffered as a result. It is the lives of individuals caught up in conflicts over which they have no control (even in a democracy) that suffer most the devastating consequences of warfare. This is why Rites of War, in which I am presently performing, is based on the story of two soldiers in wars one hundred years apart: the last soldier to die in the so-called Great War and a British casualty in the recent Afghan War. War correspondent, David Loyn, who contributed to the shaping of the work, has written a book about a country he knows well. It is called Butcher & Bolt, and is subtitled Two hundred years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan. 200 years is a long time, and the butchering and bolting that has gone on in those 200 years is unthinkable. Why is it still going on? To my mind it is not because of the soldiers and fighters who are there but because of the politicians who sent them there. War and politics, from time immemorial, are indelibly linked: I’m sure Carl von Clausewitz was not the first to understand that “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.”

The frustration of powerlessness in the face of political machinations has inspired many a creator/performer to shake up the status quo. How do you get there? Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who on August 7, 1984 set up a tension wire and walked between the Twin Towers just before they were completed, has written, ‘The creator must be an outlaw. Not a criminal outlaw, but rather a poet who cultivates intellectual rebellion. The difference between a bank job and an illegal high-wire walk is paramount: the aerial crossing does not steal anything; it offers an ephemeral gift, one that delights and inspires.’ There is a lot in this short quote: intellectual rebellion, ephemeral gift, delight and inspiration. This is what performance is all about. It is a catalyst at best, mere entertainment at least. All great artists use their art to sublimate their material, however distressing the subject. Bob Dylan’s protest songs, Wilfred Owen’s poetry, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Don McCullin’s war photography, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage, Kurt Joos’ The Green Table, all deal with the consequences of man’s catastrophic inhumanity to man, but they are all upgraded by the public (who gratefully receive the gift) from protest to high art. It is as if the art form, by removing itself from the immediacy of the unimaginable context, has neutralized it. (Photography may be the one art/performance that retains the immediate horror of its subject because the photographer behind the lens is present).

The story of a WW1 chaplain, Geoffrey Stoddert Kennedy, otherwise known as Woodbine Willie for the cigarettes he would give out to those he helped in the trenches, is telling. He was loved and highly respected among the troops for his doggerel poetry, humour and compassion. But after the war when he applied his ideas to the political (socialist) arena, he was reviled. Employing ethics as a shining sword, he had crossed the line between performance and politics.

Have you noticed how bad politicians are at acting? They can’t bridge the gap between politics and performance. What one expects of actors in performance is conviction in what they say and do and a correspondence between word and gesture (mime is the most revealing). Politicians want to convince you with their words, but their eyes and gestures so often betray their insincerity. You can even hear it on the radio. They are hiding. A performance that hides is a failure. A politician uses hiding as a necessary ingredient of success. In a highly mediatized era, lying (or dissembling or prevarication or misinformation) is a means of survival. We want to see justice in the world but it is rarely in the political sphere we see it; we go to the theatre for that, not for the justice itself but as a mirror of what we want to see.

The situation between Israelis and Palestinians (in the political sphere) is intolerable. I saw recently a performance in Italy by Hillel Kogan, an Israeli choreographer, who made a piece called We Love Arabs. It is a duet with himself and an Arab dancer, Adi Boutros. It is satirical, funny and touching and it ends with them offering a hummus sacrament to the audience. It makes you feel that with a change of heart, a change of perspective, peace between Israel and Palestine is possible. It is an inspiration, a poetic act of rebellion. In the lead up to the festival Italian police were calling the organisers each day to find out where Kogan and Boutros were staying, their airline schedule and when they would arrive at the theatre. At the theatre police checked our bags. This is real life politics crossing the line into performance.

A performance can juxtapose elements that in real life may be far apart in order to make a point. Theatre can condense time to bring the beginning and the end closer together. Rites of War compresses 100 years of war. Theatre that lasts 100 years becomes politics.

Humour in all its forms is a trenchant weapon in performance. From the court jester to the circus clown to the stand-up comic to Private Eye, humour is used to tell the truth in such a way as to be palatable, even to the authorities targeted, because it is a pressure valve that lets off steam through laughter.

I would like to finish with mention of dance, not only because I am a dancer but because dance, being a non-verbal form of performance conveys imagery that is full of emotional power because it is the human body that is the instrument. As Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in a 2006 TED talk, “As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up, and then we focus on their heads…’ But, he points out with characteristic wit, “We are not brains on a stick; we are embodied…Our physical condition, how we relate to ourselves physically, is of fundamental importance in our sense of self.’

I think goes some way to explain the power of performance. Performance can reconnect an audience with their sense of self, create a dialogue, inspire, perhaps to intellectual rebellion. It may also explain why politicians are not keen to support dance in our educational curriculum.