This was a beautifully planned evening of song, readings and dance, culminating in a performance of Franz Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata. Presented by the Oxford Dante Society to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, it formed part of a season of Dante themed activities programmed and supported by TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, as part of their Humanities Cultural Programme.  There were some last minute changes: tenor Seb Hill had stepped in overnight learning three solos at short notice, and speaker Anthony Hunt was unable to attend; his essay was read by pianist Jonathan Katz, who devised the event and also acted as an informal master of ceremonies.

The programme included two original dances, created with the support of DANSOX, Dance Scholarship Oxford.  The first was ‘That even I’, a solo created with movement direction by Estela Merlos and danced by Thomasin Gülgeç to music by Joseph Kay made by sampling extracts of spoken word.  Merlos, Gülgeç and Kay have worked together before, notably at the DANSOX 2021 summer school, and this piece seemed a logical development of work they showed then, in respect of its intensity, the dancer’s close attentiveness to the score, and the sense that the work had grown as an organic whole.

The second dance, ‘In a dark wood’, a duo choreographed by Susie Crow to music by Jeremy Thurlow, conjured up Dante’s wanderings through the forest at the beginning of Canto 1 of the Inferno, initially alone and then under the tutelage of  Virgil.  Cameron Everitt, as Dante, seemed to move aside invisible curtains of foliage, weaving his way beneath branches until he encountered Virgil, a severe but charismatic figure danced by Nicholas Minns.  At the end, the two made a stately geometric progress, exchanging places in a square pattern, as if Virgil were formally opening the way for Dante to go through a door, and leading him further on. 

The tiny floor area in a fully lit hall with the audience looking down from above was a very exposed stage for all three dancers.  Gülgeç, Everitt and Minns were within touching distance of the spectators, but with their individual and distinctive dance styles, they succeeded in drawing us into their imaginary worlds.

The evening concluded with the Liszt sonata, played by Jonathan Katz, and preceded by Hunt’s introduction, which reminded us that Frederick Ashton used the music for his wartime ballet Dante Sonata; Dante’s poetry has long been an inspiration for dance, and this programme continued that tradition.

This event, and also the Oxford screening and discussion of choreographer Luc Petton’s ballet Ainsi la Nuit for human dancers, birds and animals, have been recorded and will become available on the TORCH YouTube channel.

Maggie Watson

28th November 2021

Find out more about and give your feedback on TORCH’s Dante 2021 Season here

Check out the Ashmolean exhibition Dante: the Invention of Celebrity here

Read Barbara Berrington’s account of a previous Dante programme Dante in the Chapel including choreography by Susie Crow here

Ballet Cymru’s Giselle treats the well known story in a fresh and original way that nevertheless respects the original text.  Both the score by Catrin Finch and Lee Child, and the choreography (attributed to Amy Doughty, Darius James and dancers of the company) draw on the nineteenth century ballet to create something completely new.  There are musical quotations from Adolphe Adam’s music, and the dances also echo the original in interesting ways, for example using the posés temps levés with ballonés that are traditionally Giselle’s on her first entrance for the whole cast.  Nevertheless, this is a wholly new creation.

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Agudo Dance Company’s Carmen takes a fresh look at a familiar narrative, using a movement vocabulary that draws on Flamenco, Kathak and contemporary dance.  At the start, seven beams of light from above gradually illuminate each of the dancers, as they crouch in darkness on the floor, slowly creeping towards the audience, their hands clasped behind their backs.  The four men and three women dance barefoot, so the sound of Flamenco rhythms comes not so much from their beating feet as from composer Bernhard Schimpelsberger’s percussive score.

Jose Agudo has created an expressive and exciting dance style that successfully integrates Kathak-like footwork with the strong oppositions, arched backs and intense focus of Flamenco, and the freedom and generous breadth of contemporary dance technique.  The dancers move with strongly supported upper backs and arms as they perform swift glissade-type steps, pirouettes en dehors in attitude, dramatic spinning turns that freeze abruptly, and quick backward flicks of the foot.

Although there is a story, taken direct from Prosper Mérimée’s novella rather than from Bizet’s opera, this is not a detailed retelling of the tale.  Carmen’s relationships with the other dancers form the heart of the work, whether she is competing angrily with another woman or ensnaring the man who will eventually kill her.  We know that he is an outsider from the subtle flashes of red in the lining of his jerkin, which match her scarlet dress as they perform a duet that consists almost entirely of complex and erotically charge lifts, in which she seems hardly to touch the ground.  The women’s swirling skirts, the rugged machismo of the men, and the music interwoven with a thread of Cuban Bolero create an exotic, dangerous and reckless atmosphere.  Carmen’s death seems inevitable, and when at the end her lover holds her lifeless body in his arms, she seems to be a sacrificial victim, mourned by her companions in a frenzied dance.

This was collective work, and as the cast list did not attribute roles to individuals, I name all the dancers:  Nikita Goile, Joshua Scott, Luke Watson, Yukiko Masui, Faye Stoeser, Juan Sánchez Plaza and Nicola Micallef.

Maggie Watson

3rd November 2021

Find out more about Jose Agudo and his company here

The Midnight Bell, Matthew Bourne’s latest New Adventures production, presents a cast of ten characters and their personal tragedies.  Inspired by Patrick Hamilton’s novels, and set in a seedy 1930s pub and its environs, the music, designs and choreography capture a mood of gloom and desolation, punctuated by moments of humour and occasional happiness.  Bourne uses movement and dance to reveal the tension between the inner and outer lives of his characters.  Each has their own way of standing, sitting and walking, and there are continual shifts between external reality and inner fantasy, revealing a complex web of social and sexual relationships.  Amusing, touching, enraging and pathetic by turns, the six intersecting narrative plots gradually drew me in:  I felt like cheering when Miss Roach (played Michela Meazza), bound the wrists of the cad Ernest Ralph Gorse (Glenn Graham) to the bedstead in a down-at-heel hotel with his own tie, leaving him helpless and ridiculous with his trousers around his ankles.  Bryony Harrison gave a moving performance as Ella, a barmaid, who initially accepts a proposal of marriage, to social approbation, and then withdraws because she loves Bob, the waiter (Paris Fitzpatrick).  Bob, meanwhile, is infatuated with sex worker Jenny Maple (played by Bryony Wood), who touts for business under a lamp post.

The action begins a little slowly, as the characters are introduced, but the drama builds thoughout, and we share the shock when Albert (played by Liam Mower) realises that Frank (Andrew Monaghan), with whom he has had a homosexual encounter, is a policeman.  Likewise, we feel relief when the schizophrenic, played by Richard Winsor, discovers that he has not in fact strangled the actress (Daisy May Kemp) in a psychotic episode, and she is perfectly all right.

Lez Brotherston’s spectacular sets evoke the dingy poverty of a 1930s working-class area of London, offset by the changing colours of the skyline and the gorgeous pink and green of Jenny Maple’s costume.  Terry Davies’ original score ingeniously integrates the 1930s songs that the dancers lip-synch, the words confirming what their movement and dance already expresses.  Matthew Bourne’s work always excites and entertains; I found this to be his most interesting work since Play Without Words.  There are still chances to see it on tour in November https://new-adventures.net/the-midnight-bell#overview

Maggie Watson

31st October 2021

Maurice Béjart’s dance work L’Heure Exquise, inspired by and to some extent based on Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days, is a totally enthralling theatrical experience.  In the visually spectacular opening scene, Alessandra Ferri emerges like a delicate flower from a vast mound of pointe shoes, which opens at the front, as it if were a huge skirt, allowing her to step out.  Upstage right, Carsten Jung sits facing away from us, plucking a guitar: he might be her lover, her partner, or perhaps even her minder or carer, perhaps all of these.  Ferri’s performance is breath-taking.  She seems to drift in and out of reality, checking a pair of shoes for performance, reciting and singing snatches of poetry, prayers and songs, or dancing fragmentary steps.  Beckett’s character Winnie speaks in clichés that reveal greater truths;  Ferri, as Béjart’s ‘She’, dances them, at one moment indicating a Swan Queen with her ports de bras, at another, dragging her folded red parasol snaking along the stage as Giselle does the sword.  Like Winnie, ‘She’ has a bag of pathetically limited possessions, which she lays out on the stage: there is a mirror, a rose, and (as in Beckett’s play) a gun.

By the second act, Ferri is buried to her neck at the top of the pointe shoe mountain, wrapped in a chiffon veil that could be the skirt of a romantic tutu, or a shroud.  She bravely wears a jaunty white pillbox hat with a feather, but her situation is clearly desperate.  Jung (Béjart’s ‘He’) has become indispensable as he lifts and carries her around the stage.  Ferri’s relentless optimism is heart-breaking; she slowly and carefully enunciates the lyrics of Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow waltz, from which Béjart’s piece takes its name, as if everything is slipping away from her; she sings almost to the end.  We know that when she is gone, the pointe shoes will be her only tangible remains, and the dance, temporarily captured and uniquely embodied within her, will be lost.  Dance is tragically ephemeral, and so is life itself.

Maggie Watson

27th October 2021

DANSOX (Dance Scholarship Oxford) and TORCH (The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities) join forces to present Yorke Dance Project in a moving tribute to Sir Robert Cohan, as an extension to The Grace Project, continuing the discussion “Dance as Grace: Paradoxes and Possibilities”. Director Yolande Yorke-Edgell will present Cohan’s ideas on grace. On 28th October dancers from the Company will show excerpts from Cohan’s works Canciones del alma and Communion, followed by discussion. On 29th October Yolande Yorke-Edgell will dance, and there will be a special screening of Cohan’s lockdown project – Lockdown Portraits – the last series of solos he created – followed by a discussion with the director of the film.

Dates: Thursday 28th October 4.00-6.00pm, Friday 29th October 4.00-6.00pm

Venue: Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford OX4 1DY

Tickets: Admission free, but numbers limited for social distancing: book to reserve a seat by emailing susan.jones@ell.ox.ac.uk
and copying in marcus.bell@st-hildas.ox.ac.uk

The latest work from ‘genre-defying’ choreographer Alexander Whitley harnesses motion capture technology to explore the biological form of the human body. This spectacular new stage production asks, are organisms just algorithms? Is life just data processing? Whitley’s experimental new work Anti-Body uses motion capture technology in a unique and visually thrilling dance experience that sees dancers perform together live and in virtual space.

Renowned for creating ambitious, interdisciplinary, and thought-provoking work with innovation and digital technology at its core, Anti-Body is Whitley’s first new work for the stage since the Covid-19 pandemic and will preview at DanceEast on Friday 8th October 2021 and Oxford Playhouse, in partnership with Oxford Science and Ideas Festival (IF Oxford), on Tuesday 26th October 2021.

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The play opens with a projected image of Ida Rubinstein’s grave, which morphs into mysterious and exotic visions of Naomi Sorkin, who slowly unwinds and removes one veil after another.  She is at once Cléopâtre, Salomé and Rubinstein, gradually revealing her body, as she prepares to disclose layer upon layer of her past.  Sorkin’s compelling performance exudes magnetic power, as she plays an ageing femme fatale telling her life story to journalist Edward Clement (played by Max Wilson). 

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The third annual DANSOX summer school was a scholarly investigation into the relationship between dance and inscription.  It treated both concepts in the broadest sense: ‘dance’ encompassed Western movement styles ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary; ‘inscription’ embraced not only the written word and notation, but also the traces preserved in art, photography, film and the dancing body itself.  The format was hybrid, with a small socially distanced audience present in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, and a recorded live stream for external participants.

Alastair Macaulay’s opening lecture looked at literary sources of inspiration for dance and the role of notation in protecting, preserving, and challenging our perceptions of works.  Macaulay’s wide ranging discussion, liberally illustrated with film clips and photographs, raised themes developed in the subsequent lectures and dance workshops.  He noted the subtle ways in which choreographers such as Merce Cunningham have drawn on a literary sources, and cited Pam Tanowitz’ interweaving of dance, music and poetry in her Four Quartets.  Macaulay also discussed the ways in which dances change over time; the problems and inadequacies of recordings; the significance of context, and the readability or otherwise of notation, whether that of Vladimir Stepanov or Vaslav Nijinsky.

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During July a week-long summer residency sponsored by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) and supported by DANSOX and APGRD (Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama) took place in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Curated by Marina Warner the residency brought together international choreographer Kim Brandstrup and two renowned dancers, Laurel Dalley Smith and Liam Riddick to develop a new dance-piece Cupid and Psyche with commissioned score by Edmund Finnis as part of the Dancing with Apollo project, originally devised by violinist Sara Trickey.

Read Professor Sue Jones‘ account of the project here

And view a short film of the residency made by Rocio Chacon now available to view on YouTube here