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