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. 

Yorke Dance Project in Twenty at Clore Studio

Posted: May 27th, 2019 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Yorke Dance Project in Twenty at Clore Studio

Yorke Dance Project, Twenty, Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House, May 16

Yorke Dance Project in Playground
Yorke Dance Project in Kenneth MacMillan’s Playground (photo: Pari Naderi)

Yorke Dance Project is celebrating its twentieth anniversary with a choreographic landscape that ranges from a revival of a work by Sir Kenneth MacMillan to new works by Robert Cohan, Sophia Stoller and company founder, Yolande Yorke-Edgell. This landscape contains within it other landscapes, for Cohan, as an early Martha Graham dancer, sees his ever-present mentor in the distance and quotes from an earlier work of his own, while Yorke-Edgell revisits some of the choreographers who have influenced and inspired her, notably Richard Alston, Bella Lewitsky and Cohan himself. 

MacMillan’s Playground from 1979 is very much in the foreground for its visual imagery, its rhythmic cohesion with the music of Gordon Crosse and the spatial richness of its groupings. From Gordon Anthony’s photographs in the program of the original set, Yolanda Sonnabend had created a sense of oppression through the suggestion of a wire mesh cage; for Yorke Dance in the Clore Studio, Charlotte MacMillan has reimagined a more portable industrial fencing that might surround a building site. Seeing Playground is to be reminded how uncompromising MacMillan was in portraying the seamy side of social and ethical questions that classical ballet rarely if ever treats. And although he uses the visual stimulus of costumes and set, he tells his story principally through a masterful handling of classical technique in the tortured image of a twentieth-century zeitgeist. The playground of the title comes from Crosse’s score, Play Ground, but it also refers to an enclosed, isolated world in which adults dressed as school children play out their noxious games of rivalry and jealousy under the watchful eye of two clinicians in white. The issues of madness, sanity and debilitating neurological disease — the principal girl, like MacMillan’s mother, has epilepsy — are close to the surface and unresolved, giving the work its unsettling character. There are two principal characters — The Girl with Makeup and The Youth — and a large supporting cast for which Yorke Dance invited a number of guests. Oxana Panchenko alternates with Romany Pajdak as the Girl while Jordi Calpe Serrats alternates with Jonathan Goddard as the Youth. The production is given added credibility by the assistance of Susie Crow and Stephen Wicks from the original cast and Jane Elliott as notator; the power of the choreography comes through even if the images of distress at its centre are not always fully realized. 

Coming at the beginning of the program, Playground overshadows the remaining works for different reasons. Stoller’s Between and Within is created on two couples (Edd Mitton, Freya Jeffs, Dane Hurst and Abigail Attard Montalto) whose all too familiar choreographic vocabulary fails to explore with any clarity the relationship between them while Justin Scheid’s composition accompanies the dancers without becoming involved in the choreography. It’s a well-crafted work but lacks the visual and emotional signals that give dance meaning. 

At the age of 94, it is perhaps not surprising that Robert Cohan’s new work, Communion, looks into the past for inspiration, but it’s a little too far for the current cast to fully comprehend. Communion’s aesthetic is a minimalist ritual celebration that Cohan’s old friend and lighting designer John B. Reid has lit superbly. Both the choreography and the lighting seem to take their inspiration from the heavenward aspirations of a gothic cathedral and could indeed be performed in one; there is a pull in the choreography between heaven and earth — as in Martha Graham’s work — in which the dancers are held back from ascending only by the force of their gravity. In the secular scale of the Clore Studio, however, the muscular presence of the dancers in shorts and sleeveless tops leads aspiration into a rather lackadaisical disenchantment, especially in the formal patterns of walking. The music was intended to be shared between MuOM, Barcelona Overtone Singing Choir and Nils Frahm, which might have provided a more spiritual aural space than the unexplained substitute of MuOM by an additional selection of Frahm’s rather saccharine piano mixes. 

Yorke-Edgell’s Imprint is a new work for her company’s anniversary celebration, created ‘from the imprint of a purely physical memory’ of the work of different choreographers over the course of her dance career. She uses the form of pastiche in choreography, music and recorded text to honour her mentors but channelling five composers and three choreographers through the bodies of fifteen dancers can only be sustained in a spirit of celebration. The imprint of her solo for Freya Jeffs, however, carries an element of truth that endures.

GOlive in Oxford

Posted: July 28th, 2015 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on GOlive in Oxford

GOlive, Burton Taylor studio, Oxford Playhouse, July 18

Susan Kempster in My Own Private Movie (photo: Maurizio Malangone)

Susan Kempster in My Own Private Movie (photo: Maurizio Malangone)

Critic turned critic-entrepreneur Donald Hutera is creating and curating opportunities for dancers to perform who might otherwise have few occasions to show their work. Oxford is a first for GOlive and there is a further outing at the Chesil Theatre in Winchester on July 24. The venues are small — the original GOlive venue at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town holds 60 people and the Burton-Taylor studio seats 50 — but their intimacy works well for the small-scale works Hutera is presenting. One of the advantages of this proximity is the value given to the subtleties of communication; there are elements of this evening’s program that provide a master class in the art of integrating the head and eyes in the moving body, a vital aspect that is all too often overlooked in dance training.

When Anuradha Chaturvedi performs her solo, Quicksilver, to a score by Jeremy Thurlow, her dancing is not only attuned rhythmically to the music but has a refreshing clarity of expression because her eyes, head and hands are in constant communication with the rest of her body. She gives the impression of being centred and focused from within and there is a direct line of communication from inside to the audience. I am reminded of something Henri Cartier-Bresson said about a photographic image: it is formed of a line between they eye, the heart, and the head. In a photographic image that line stops at the plane of the image; in dance it is carried through the entire body. In the duet Chaturvedi dances with Meena Selva Anand, Silent Melody, to music by Bikram Ghosh, the same elements are present but there is an added complexity — and beauty — in that the two dancers are communicating with each other at the same time they are communicating with us. It is mesmerizing.

Marie-Louise Crawley performs as part of Avid for Ovid, an umbrella title for a new ensemble of Oxford area dance and music artists who bring ideas and methods from Roman pantomime to the telling of ancient myths. When she wears a neutral mask for her solo, Myrrha, she makes her body express what the face cannot but her head with its smooth, china-white exterior is also expressive because it is precisely tuned with the rest of the body. Crawley spent six years performing with Ariane Mnouchkine in her Théâtre du Soleil so she knows the rigour of and the responsibility for working with the mask. It is fascinating to see how the very lack of innate expression in the mask — its animal-like emotionless state — contrasts with the body’s emotional turmoil. Through Crawley’s articulate arms and expressive plastic shapes we can feel her inner workings of fear and despair in the telling of her incestuous story. Her hands on her womb become a leitmotif of birth and of the unrelenting hand of fate.

Susie Crow, a stalwart of the Oxford dance scene, is also instrumental in Avid for Ovid; her personification of Tisiphone is an instructive contrast to Crawley because while she has no mask she finds a stillness in her face as if it is one. Crow, who danced with the Royal Ballet, has a naturally classical line and she constructs her solo on the spiral that is as present in the classical fifth position as it is all the way up the body into the head and shoulders. Crow mastered this form some time ago and relishes in the freedom it gives her to move. Tisiphone is a fury in classical legend and although Crow herself hardly fits the description, her movement conjures up Tisiphone’s fiery character in the forceful sweep of her choreography. Malcolm Atkins’ lovely score for both pieces colours the dramatic elements in a way that informs the movement without dictating to it. Unfortunately I missed the third Avid for Ovid segment by Segolene Tarte, who performed Lyacaon the night before.

The strength of Sue Lewis’s female trio, Fascination, is in the physical drive of Catrin Lewis, Effie McGuire and Natasha Wade but is undermined by its weakness in communication. Perhaps Fascination suffers from its juxtaposition to the four previous works because it is immediately apparent that the movement of the dancers’ eyes and heads is focused inwards (if anywhere), which places the audience in a similar relation to a viewer in an art gallery. Interestingly, Fascination is based on the recurring pattern of three women in Picasso’s paintings but the spatial tension that keeps his women on the canvas does not hold the choreography together on the stage. The elements Lewis has taken from these paintings and woven into her choreography express a purely physical realm — even Adrian Corker’s music seems to flow by on another plane — that has lost something in translation.

The evening begins with Susan Kempster’s My Own Private Movie, a conceptual work about personal communication in a wired environment saturated with iPods, iPhones and social media. At the start of the performance, Kempster hands each member of the audience a mini iPod with a pre-recorded track of music, text and, for some, instructions. She apologizes in advance that some of the iPods may not work, in which case there is nothing to be done but listen to the performance in silence. Ironically Kempster’s own iPod malfunctions at the moment she signals all of us to turn on the device, which seems to feed into the theme perfectly. Those members of the audience who receive instructions descend to the stage, change places, turn and wait, listening for the next instruction. Their vacant expression is indicative of inner process, and Kempster’s idea is to show us the contrast between that inner process and being fully in the external reality. Because she is the only one without an iPod, her role is rather more poetic than it might have been as she stops to listen for signs of life, for a sense of community with her wired cast; she is the only one who is free to act. It shows in the eyes and head.

Dancing the Invisible

Posted: May 5th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Dancing the Invisible

Dancing the Invisible – Late Work at the Ivy Arts Centre, University of Surrey, with Jennifer Jackson, Susie Crow, Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones, Simon Rice

The stage at the Ivy Centre is bare, with seating arranged on three sides, and the two musicians and their array of electronic instruments taking up the fourth. Jennifer Jackson is the compere with words of welcome and orientation. Is this part of the performance? Simply and elegantly dressed, she looks as if she is about to cue the dancers to emerge from some dark edge of the performing space. But it is she who starts, initiating this dialogue into the transformative effect of ageing on dancers and its implications for choreographic practice. As Jackson writes in the program notes, “…opportunities for professional dance artists to sustain performance practice as they age, and for audiences to engage with repertoire that speaks to this experience, are still rare…” The trouble is that ballet dancers age so gracefully it is quite easy to forget this central focus of the research and to simply enjoy what Jackson and her colleagues perform. Perhaps this is the point. Watching Jackson’s introduction to the formal elements of the improvisation that will follow – the Signature section to Late work – it is immediately apparent that her classical ballet training is so deeply embodied in her that no advance in age can take it away. A fourth position of impeccable line and oppositional forces is a beautiful thing, and when Jackson finds this shape, in this intimate space, we are initiated into the essence of ballet without the historical context and trappings. That is another point worth remembering. Despite the years of accumulated training at the Royal Ballet, this loose collaborative of dancers will not be donning tights and tutus. As Jackson reminds us, “I am interested in…how dance might challenge the aesthetics of established dance performances.”

The musicians (Malcolm Atkins and Andrew Melvin) enter, playing spiritedly on melodicas, and Susie Crow follows them, like a small procession in a festive parade. Susie’s torso finds her own beautiful, subtle shapes, engaging the classical vocabulary in a fluid and understated way. Jackson and Crow are at ease in this performing space, filling it with their game of improvisation. Recognisable gestures – a raised arm pointing upwards, a framing of an angle with the hands – appear out of these shapes, as in a narrative. Late work is engagingly internal, addressing what is going on in the minds and bodies of the two dancers but there is also an external dimension, the mysterious domain of the dance that  transports us elsewhere. Behind their array of electronic equipment Melvin and Atkins are also intimately involved in what is happening, adding their own magic to that of the two dancers: four improvisers on a fluid theme.

The boots and shoes come off and are replaced by the ballet slipper. Aurora and the Queen, pale deconstructed eminences from the past, play before us. It is enough for Jackson to say “I am a princess” and for Crow to say, “I am a queen” for us to believe it and to enter into the play. A recorded voice reminds us that steps a dancer has learned are without meaning unless experienced within the context of a rhythmical whole. It is Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty choreographed by Samuel Becket. Jackson develops phrases from classical ballet: en dedans, en dehors. Taken apart, detached from a sequence, they nevertheless have a power of association. En arrière, backwards, into the past. Aurora has been here before. Jackson and Crow change roles, and Crow journeys through the body’s memory, bringing out courtly gestures, childlike longing, a trembling leg and arm. The two Auroras embrace, comfort each other, merge.

In the Pulse section, the music is off in all directions and the two dancers are sitting on chairs improvising a set of movements to different counts. This is the evidence, if any is needed, that the mind of an ageing dancer is not in decline. It is functioning at lightning memory speed until the game comes to a halt. This is where the men come in, or so it seems from the musical cue. But it is a section called Fragmentation, sung in disconnected syllables, with an accent on the second syllable. The movement vocabulary is fragmented too, breaking dance phrases into abstract fragments, what Crow calls ‘the merging of personal memory and disciplinary structures.’ In the Haiku section, brief phrases of movement and gesture suggest a poetic narrative, transferred from one dancer to the other. There is an element of contemplation here, eyes closed, a suggestion of an afternoon of a faun. It is this section that is perhaps the most tantalizing, because the relationship between the two dancers begins to acquire some context, a story that is about to find expression, a potential that is awaiting to find its form. The improvisation of movement and music fuses here most convincingly.

In the final section, Rhythm and Melody, Jackson and Crow are seated opposite each other. They begin with a basic port-de-bras and develop it in mirror image, sharing elements of the classical canon that are explored, extended and broken. Assemblé, développé, élancé are quoted though without relation to the seated movements. The two dancers slow down, as if lost in space, fingers searching, reaching across a divide in silence, watching each other, closing in, bending forward in a gentle but inevitable surrender to the pull of gravity.

Part 2, Dancing the Invisible, is set to the Bach’s cello suite no. 2 in D minor, played beautifully by Emily Burridge. The suite’s movements derive from the courtly dances of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet and Gigue. Jackson and Crow are joined by Ann Dickie, Deborah Jones and Simon Rice. The five dancers are seated in the audience. During the Prelude one dancer follows the weaving, courtly musical line across the stage to introduce another, until all five are on stage. The choreography is, like Late work, a collaborative venture with all the dancers, though here the improvisation has already happened and the choreography has by now acquired a set structure. The four women disperse once again to their seats leaving Simon Rice propping up the back wall at a rather desperate angle. Rice is the one male presence of the evening’s works, and he takes full advantage, playing the cock among the hens. Jackson chases him into the beginning of the Allemande, but once caught, Rice playfully makes her repeat movements as if in rehearsal. Rice then dances with Jones, commenting that the last time they danced together was 29 years ago at this very university in 1983. It is an anecdotal dance of old friends with a shared past. Crow expresses reticence in her solo, then Dickie and Jones join in a gestural conversation of searching hands and eyes. Dickie’s wrists and hands seem to begin a dance all by themselves, winding and interweaving, engaging her expressive arms and torso. Reminding us of the strains and stresses of a long stage career, the five dancers regroup in the centre to agonise and sympathise with their respective aches and pains. Jones is a shiatsu therapist, but this is not the moment. Each dancer has a signature movement that they express and develop in a final gigue-inspired game.

Dance is often described as ephemeral, but for the dancer it is anything but ephemeral. It is lodged in their muscles and the mind. Looking at these dancers, it is clear the dance has never left them, a vast resource that needed the gentle enticement of academic research for it to emerge into the light. And even if the dance doesn’t come out as a variation from Sleeping Beauty with full orchestra, the power of its associated elements is richly rewarding. The importance of age in this process is that it provides a greater reservoir of experience from which to bring these memories to the surface. Because all forms of memory are invisible, this is dancing the invisible, but the aspect we saw last night was manifestly visible. These are not older dancers strutting their stuff past their virtuosic prime – as some older dancers have been known to do – but offering us the rich territory of individual and shared dance experience.

Jackson herself affirms this in the final lines of her introduction in the printed program: “Does the dancing stop as the body ages? Clearly I think not…and it is a pleasure to share ways in which for us as ageing people the dance and music continue to provoke and promote life, well-being, communication and community.”

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