January 2009

From a strong field of entrants, Rachel Gildea, a recent leaver from Oxford and Cherwell Valley College planning to study dance at university, Emma Dougan, studying English at Worcester College, Oxford University, and Julia Janikova from Oxford and Cherwell Valley College were chosen as winners of the Dance Writers of the Future competition to become student reviewers for the Dancin’ Oxford Festival 2009.

The three winners received free tickets to the press night for Balletboyz – Greatest Hits at the Oxford Playhouse on Friday 23rd January, and will have access to further reduced price press tickets for other dance events. They will each submit a minimum of three reviews to the project which will be available online via the Dancin’ Oxford website and this blog.

The competition simulated a professional critic’s task complete with deadline: entrants were asked to submit a review of up to 400 words of Ballet in Small Spaces’ The Solos Project at the Burton Taylor Studio last week. A panel of David Bellan, dance critic of the Oxford Times; Penny Cullerne Bown, principal of East Oxford School of Ballet; and Susie Crow of Ballet in Small Spaces judged entries on the quality of written English, their flair, imaginative response and engagement, their informed understanding, and inclusion of accurate detail and useful information.

In addition to the winners, the judges also wished to commend Katherine Rollo from St Hilda’s College, Oxford University, Rosie Hore from East Oxford School of Ballet GCSE Dance, and Rachel Banham of Oxford and Cherwell Valley College for their entries.

You can view the winning entries below: further reviews of The Solos Project will be viewable via the forthcoming Ballet in Small Spaces website.

Winning entries

Emma Dougan is studying English Language and Literature at Worcester College University of Oxford. In writing she specified that her review was intended for “online publication, not necessarily aimed specifically at a dancing audience, possibly included in general arts reviews”.

Performances ‘off-the-wall’: Ballet in Small Spaces at the Burton Taylor theatre

The boundary of the BT’s black walls was just one of many aspects of the medium explored in tonight’s performances by locally-based artists. The focus provided by the ‘small space’ shone a spotlight on the potentials of facial expression, the spoken word, costume, and indeed, the spotlights themselves.

Hannah de Cancho made use of the latter, for example, in the opening and closing motif of her silhouetted cycling legs. The work progressed from an earthy animalism to religious humility to striving confidence, but aside from its defining motif unfortunately lacked a certain tangibility. This cannot be said of Fiona Millward’s performance, which engaged the audience with her confiding air, and her playful use of her costume. The fluorescent piping of her ruff and hooped skirt glowed at the start and end of her performance like the Cheshire cat’s smile, holding the disconcerting note struck by her spoken questions on the purpose of entertainment. This feeling of unease was maintained by another trilogy, in which Debbie Camp burlesqued the burlesque, throwing angular postures and fruitless shimmies around the limited space in a dazzling costume, at first confidently, then frenetically, then finally exhaustedly, using the very wall of the space to support herself.

Ruth Pethybridge’s panegyric to self-love had a wonderfully fey sense of humour, matched by her whimsical music choices. Like Millward, she charmed the audience with the obvious enjoyment expressed in her voice, face, and self-assured movement, and which was fully evident in her jubilant conclusion, ‘Dancing with Myself’. This accessibility made Thomas J.M. Wilson’s work all the more startling: this piece certainly deserves the description ‘off-the-wall’, but the artist clearly sought out unusual ways to contend with his medium’s aesthetics. The mask that hid his face reduced the work to a purely formal performance, and restricted his movements to lunges and twists of the legs, enforcing awareness of the space’s limitations. Carefully controlled lighting revealed only parts of the full form at a time, producing an oddly arresting, almost mesmerising effect. This was followed again by disorientating contrast, in Anuradha Chaturvedi’s shimmering Kathak performance, full of rapid spins, flickering facial expressions, and a consummate awareness of the music’s rhythms, shaken out in the bells that surrounded each of her ankles. Conjuring up an ideal sentiment to end the night, the concluding artist proved the power of a solo dancer to evoke glamour and celebration, even in these small spaces.

Rachel Gildea is currently on a gap year having completed a-levels in Dance, English Literature and History and is applying to study Dance and English or Dance and Culture at university in September. She wrote her review for an intended audience of dance lovers.

Alone in the presence of others: Review of The Solos Project. a show by Susie Crow’s Ballet in Small Spaces.

Hidden away behind the bright lights of the Oxford Playhouse, the Burton Taylor Studio is one of our city’s best kept secrets. Although unprepossessing on the outside; inside, the potential of its intimate 50-seater theatre is very apparent. The soloists had nowhere to hide from the close gaze of the audience, huddled in anticipation. How well-suited, if not a little daunting for the dancers, to perform alone in such a personal setting. With dance, so often associated with collaboration, companionship, co-existence and accompaniment, The Solos Project offered an opportunity for some of Oxford’s professional dancers to step bravely forward into the limelight, revealing to us their unique, isolated worlds.

The freedom of this self-expression seemed to stimulate in all the pieces a powerful undertone of self-questioning, exploration and discovery. Most openly confessional were Fiona Millward and Ruth Pethybridge, whose performances of Hoop and Love after Love both engaged the audience in a natural and honest portrayal of their relationship with themselves. Whilst Millward playfully made known her inner longing (and perhaps angst) to make the audience feel warm and happy, Pethybridge evoked the difficulty of feeling happy with ourselves. What was being suggested was that, as humans, we struggle with our complexity and ambivalence. Although we long for the limelight, we also dread it because it can expose our inner frailties. Perhaps this was most intensely expressed in Blotter, Thomas Wilson’s solo. He denied the audience any sight of himself, remaining encased in a sort of fabric cocoon. His multicoloured padded suit de-humanised him and his tall hood was eerily reminiscent of a grim reaper. The theatre was hushed and astonished as the figure moved slowly and sadly across the dimly lit stage, avoiding the lights, it seemed. The piano whimpered and induced an atmosphere of deep melancholy. For me, it was the most memorable performance.

Pethybridge poignantly put into words the self as a ‘stranger you’ve known all your life’. With this, she highlighted a truth that we are alone and that we have to learn to be alone with ourselves. All the pieces were captivating in their own way. The way in which the performers were wholly and confidently true to themselves in different ways commanded my admiration. We are wonderfully, gloriously different, with all our peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses and that’s how it should be. Dance with yourself.

Julia Janikova is a Year 1National Diploma in Dance student at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College.

An event of new solo works curated by Susie Crow of Ballet In Small Spaces

“Do not go where the path may lead, instead go where there is no path and leave a trail” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These words indeed say what the evening is about – ‘expect the unexpected and explore the unexplored!’ This taster of 6 pieces from Oxfordshire dance artists is a definite sell-out. You could call it ‘the Oxford version of Sadler’s Wells –Sampled!’ The styles include contemporary, physical theatre and Kathak.

The show starts – a small light comes on, and in her piece Routed, Hannah de Cancho is taking steps in the air! Her shadow on the wall enhances feeling of awe. This contemporary piece is an exploration of pathways and where they may lead… The question is ‘Where will they take you?’

Fiona Millward in her magically lit costume makes you smile in Hoop, a humorous piece looking at her ironic life as an ‘immature fantasist’. Fiona engages the audience with piercing eye contact and question “Are you happy?” leaving you time for reflection…

Debbie Camp turns into a mathematical figure in Susie Crow’s choreography of Boom and Bust and reflects on the financial crisis that has taken over the world. She leaves the stage with a cardboard box, packed with items from her feathered costume, a reference to many job losses…

Ruth Pethybridge reflects on Derek Walcott’s poem Love After Love and the need for self-love. Are the mugshots at the beginning referring to being prisoner in own body, trying to find a way out?

Thomas JM Wilson presents himself as Blotter – a creature you love the moment you see it on the empty stage. Together with music and clever lighting he creates a powerful atmosphere you do not want to leave! This piece clearly takes physical theatre to another level.

Lastly, Anuradha Chaturvedi lures you into North India. Her piece Tarana consists of intricate rhythm patterns, foot taps and fast turns – everything a traditional Kathak dance should include.

This is an event when dancers, choreography, costumes, lighting and the audience all come together and create a wonderful atmosphere and a night to remember! And if you let go of your imagination completely, Fiona in her caricature costume could turn into a Snow White, and you may even hear an alien ‘Blotter’ trying to communicate with you….

This project certainly leaves a trail behind and I look forward to future productions.

About the Dance Writers of the Future Project:

Over the spring term 2009 students with an interest in performing arts and especially dance will be encouraged to develop their critical and writing skills in reviewing dance performances in Oxford, beginning with The Solos Project at the Burton Taylor Studio in January and covering the events of the Dancin’ Oxford Festival. This project involves groups studying GCSE Dance at East Oxford School of Ballet, National Diplomas in Dance and Performing Arts at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, also BA Performing Arts students from Oxford Brookes University, and Oxford University undergraduates with an interest in arts and journalism. It is led by Mike Levy, Oxford University Drama Officer, and Susie Crow of Ballet in Small Spaces.

Daily Telegraph Dance Critic Ismene Brown was the guest speaker for an introductory Question and Answer session on dance writing and reviewing at the Burton Taylor Studio Theatre on 27th November 08, and Susie Crow led a session on critical writing and reviewing for OCVC students on 9th December 08. All participating students are encouraged to attend a performance of the Solos Project in January and submit a brief review. Selected writings will be posted on the web, and may also be published in print. A small number of students from across the groups will receive specially discounted tickets to Oxford venues to enable them to continue reviewing dance events over the spring term. All participating will be encouraged to continue submitting reviews and contributing to online debate through this blog and postings pages hosted by Dancin’ Oxford and Ballet in Small Spaces. Oxford University students involved are encouraged to submit a portfolio of dance reviews to the annual Tynan Prize for drama criticism.

We will keep you posted as to the progress of the project and hope that you will enjoy reading about dance in Oxford…