Dance practice exists on the margins of Oxford University life, without facilities and with little institutional support, despite the huge popularity of Dancesport.   But a good audience in Keble College’s O’Reilly Theatre on a Wednesday evening suggested that this year’s spring term dance show The Barefaced Night is successfully attracting an audience and meeting a demand.  Based on a Scandinavian folk tale perhaps more widely known as East of the Sun, West of the Moon, this full length piece tells the tale of the wayward princess Fayra, courted and married by an enchanted bear who at night turns back into a prince in the darkness of the bedchamber.  When her curiosity to see his face perpetuates the curse, Fayra must pay a terrible price to be finally reunited with her lover.

Co-choreographer and director Hannah Moore draws on an assortment of devices to tell and structure this resonant narrative.  A mixed chorus in uniform green frames the central characters as trees of the forest, courtiers, soldiers, waves of the sea; a trio of speakers in white clarify the action in poetic interventions; an ensemble of musicians offers chamber accompaniment both onstage and from the gallery to the side of the auditorium. One must admire the ambition of this undertaking, the commitment of performers and the desire to integrate dance, poetry and music, even if conveying the narrative convincingly in dance is sometimes beyond the capabilities of the company.  Guest performers from outside the university lend authority through their skilful performance; Anja Meinhardt sustaining the capricious energy of Fayra to the end, moving in her transition from selfishness to selfless sacrifice, Alan Buckley a storyteller of gravitas and foreboding.

A sometimes clunky amalgam of dance movement and performance genres includes snatches of contemporary, flamenco skirt swishing, capoeira for combat scenes, some balletic clichées as well as ballroom vocabulary and partnering.  It was good to see a few men showing technical competence and performing with confidence, but the already cramped space of the O’Reilly stage is further restricted by an uninteresting arrangement of scenic elements, allowing the chorus little room for manoeuvre and limiting the potential for dramatic spatial arrangement of the dancers.  Bringing the musicians into an already crowded space without involving them more creatively in the action sometimes seemed unnecessary and slowed the pace.  Fayra and her bear prince’s duets are too literal and lacking in dance invention.   The production would benefit from some rigorous pruning, honing of dance skills and more attention to production details – even if budgets are tight, and costumes are rudimentary, the least experienced company can and should aspire to professional standards of neatness in presentation – press those dresses!

Susie Crow