December 2010

The recent news about the rise in tuition fees at university has sparked huge resentment and anger, not only among students and future students but also among their families.  But outrage at the prospect of a disproportionate rise in fees has perhaps deflected attention from the shocking 80% cut in the teaching grant to universities; and the privileging of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) over the humanities, social sciences and arts.  The possible far reaching consequences of these radical steps seem to get little intelligent discussion in media fixated on the immediacy of student protest.

At a time when vocational dance courses have been under pressure to come under the umbrella of higher education funding, and furnish young people with recognised university level qualifications, it now seems a case of “out of the frying pan into the fire”.  Performing arts courses with their studio requirements and high proportion of teaching contact time to independent study, are expensive to run – if unsubsidised by government who will be able to afford them?

How can opportunities for studying the arts be defended and protected in such a hostile climate?  What do the arts bring to universities?  At a time of such financial stringency how would you justify government support for performing arts students?

At a recent day of events on Performances and Texts at Robinson College Cambridge as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Professor Robin Kirkpatrick gave the following lecture on the importance of performance in an academic context – food for thought…

Dante in the Chapel at Mansfield College, Oxford

28th November 2010: Reactions the next morning

Art historian Barbara Berrington has watched the development of creative work in response to Dante’s The Divine Comedy arising from Robin Kirkpatrick’s project “Experience Dante” at Robinson College Cambridge last year, and these are her reflections on the latest event.

Obviously Ballet in Small Spaces is an ideal vehicle but what Robin has generated Susie has here brought to fruition, and effectively the music now available can increasingly be endlessly re-aligned in terms of both concert and dance sequences.

But this evening, a traditional chapel (well Victorian Gothic) also seemed to assist in the creation of a spiritual experience.  The chapel is accessible from the road, attendance felt like going to Evensong – and, whether it was that or the conventions of concert goers or – as I rather suspect – something else as well, the entire performance passed without a sound (and with only one flash photograph) until the final piece (an arrangement of the Panufnik This Paradise with Susie’s new dance) was complete.

Whether acknowledged or not, our post-lapsarian society aspires to something beyond ourselves – even if it is simply a hope that our own highest aspirations shall coalesce into something greater.  And here, with Dante, appropriately embodied in stained glass in a window high in the north wall, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Day in Hell was contextualised by the work of others (Beethoven and György Ligeti) and was progressed through a form not unlike the traditional carol service of readings and music, with Robin Kirkpatrick doing the readings from his translation of the Commedia.

Lovely as these are I found myself hankering for at least some small taste of the Italian original to accompany them.  But Robin’s own reading increasingly has something liturgical about it – and the positioning of the Cappé Sextet at the altar end, while the flute and oboe were at the West Entrance, gave us a musical bipolarity, like the antiphonal positioning of priest and choir at one end being set against the congregation at the other. . .  And that the dancers then danced on behalf of that congregation made us enter with them into Purgatory, to work their way laboriously towards a space in which Matelda could dance our hopes of salvation.

And when the same dancers then re-emerged, like a choir, from the vestry, translated into heavenly beings, their bodily garments were also transformed, not by the donning of cassocks and albs, but by the addition of some twenty-first-century gauzy stuff that caught the light: a band of Botticelli angels – mankind perfected by his entry into an imagined heaven.

Susie’s Purgatory dance had been considerably adjusted from the original performance in Robinson College’s Refectory.[1] Though the main elements were still in place, the use of a traverse staging, with the audience on either side, encouraged – nay required – a multi-aspect configuration of the dancers.  This, and perhaps Susie’s recent exploration of workshop improvisations at DEC, meant that, instead of the tightly- focused experience normal in a proscenium or end-stage convention, no one member of the audience could contain the impact of the whole attenuated production.  It passed automatically beyond the periphery of vision.  And this in turn gave it a sense of the unknowable – of being “beyond our understanding” – entirely appropriate to Dante’s conception of, in particular, Paradiso.

Moreover these dancers, a different set of dancers from those I had encountered in Cambridge, were in some ways more strongly characterised by their own individuality, rather than by their identity as a group.  There was a personal expressiveness to their dancing which emphasised their human rather than their seraphic capabilities – spoke of the individual journey rather than their collective dynamic.  I found myself following these individual and personal trajectories within a narrative, rather than stepping back and admiring the disposition of the whole.

Thus staging and dance style here spelt out a very strong narrative of souls separated by the problems that each must overcome, purify or exorcise – their help for one another a reinforcement of neighbourly collaboration and support but always subordinated to their Duty to God – to a fulfilment of what he had laid upon them.

The revelation of their arrival in Paradise, the wiping away (a lovely gesture this) of the blindnesses of their previous mis-perceptions, therefore beatified them – rendered them peculiarly blessed and filled with wonder at their individual and united perfectedness.

And they had such enviable energy in Paradiso.  The exuberant joyful music of Roxanna Panufnik’s piece, its exploration of a context in which limitation played no part, was played out in their exploration of space, in endless circling reunions and expansions and in the celebration of shape and form and light – in occasional set pieces and in the fluid exploration of near-impossible balance points.

After the effortful circuitousness of Purgatorio, led forward by music that promised to the steadfast a release into Heaven, Paradiso glowed and glistered – and was ecstatic with the wonder of what was now possible.  Susie Crow acknowledged here a debt to the drawings of Botticelli for Divina Commedia – had absorbed into her dance vocabulary both the atti of these figures and also (from Paradiso) a quality of completeness with which Botticelli endows both the individual figures and the circling shapes and spheres.  While Purgatory embodied the struggle of a Blakean vision, Paradise expressed its realisation in terms of a Renaissance self confidence.  The chains, the basket, the circle, the very scattering to all points of a compass, embodied early Renaissance order – emerging from the medieval but rounded by the naturalness, clear perspectives and yet cosmic awareness of a full Renaissance self fashioning.

To us, today, that remains enormously appealing.

Barbara Berrington

[1] In Cambridge

Dansk Danseteater

Enigma, CaDance, Kridt

Oxford Playhouse is delighted to present the UK premiere of Danish Dance Theatre at the start of a major national tour.

Danish Dance Theatre is one of the foremost contemporary dance companies in Scandinavia. Led by Birmingham-born artistic director Tim Rushton since 2001, the company is in demand all over the world and performs to huge international acclaim.

With this triple-bill audiences will be treated to and captivated by Rushton‘s unique choreography, which combines the classical lines of ballet with the power of modern dance.

Enigma, with music by Mathias Friis-Hansen, layers powerful, beautiful and sensual duets as the dancers strive to understand each other. CaDance is a thrilling testosterone-fuelled competition between the 5 male dancers, driven by Andy Pape‘s exhilarating music performed live on stage by two drummers. In the award-winning Kridt(Chalk), a work from 2005 based on Peteris Vasks‘s exquisite suite for strings Musica Adventus and the texts of Ecclesiastes, a man on the verge of death remembers his life, told by the people he has known.

“Tim Rushton’s dances strike like a thunderclap.”   The Boston Globe

For more details and booking: