After a summer of invisible dance here in Oxford (see The summer of big and small) autumn arrived with some unexpected riches.  Good things in small packages were a couple of classy programmes of dance at the Burton Taylor Studio; the mesmerising Aakash Odedra in Rising, and the very likeable Yorke Dance Project. Before that Candoco at the Playhouse were inspiring and exemplary in performance of a richly varied triple bill of works by Javier de Frutos, Wendy Houston and Trisha Brown, whose Set and Reset was reset specially for the company, marking its 20th birthday.

But I was saddened and puzzled by the small audiences for these high quality and thoroughly enjoyable live dance shows.  Despite the appearance by members of Candoco before millions in the Olympics opening and Paralympics closing ceremonies, this did not result in audiences packing the theatre.  Despite a prominent Oxford Times feature about Anton du Beke of Strictly fame who had choreographed for the deft dancers of the Yorke Dance Project, this did not sell out the tiny Burton Taylor.  This at a time when more than ever dance companies need to build their audience support.  I wondered how even the tiniest company can cover its costs with so little box office, and why fine dance that a wide public could enjoy and be proud of can pass so unremarked.

As a choreographer I have long been painfully aware of the ephemerality of the dances I make.  For at the small scale once the work is performed it usually vanishes, rarely to be seen again.  In recent years funding policies which have put a premium on novelty, innovation and “additionality” have made it difficult to repeat work, bring back repertoire or consolidate and improve on first drafts.  Friends who have missed the handful of performances programmed have promised to see it the next time – but there rarely is a next time.  Dance companies are increasingly booked only for one night stands by theatres afraid to take risks on an unpredictable audience.  One effect of this is that papers often don’t bother to review one night stands, assuming their endorsement will have no effect on ticket sales, and is of no interest to readers who have missed the chance to see the work.  Yet if I had to choose between the option of a press feature before the performance or a review after, on balance I would choose the review – the former may help sell a few tickets now, but the latter has a far more long term effect.

The written review bears witness to the unique moment of a particular performance, and records the writer’s engagement with it.  It pins down the fleeting experience of the dance which took so much time and effort to construct, and however briefly and imperfectly makes it live again in the imagination of the reader.  In particular for small scale and intimate work it is a reminder of the precious phenomenon of shared live performance, its excitement, uncertainty and personal impact.  It transforms the dance into another medium, one which many in society are more likely to understand and consider seriously.  Many dancers find words a longwinded and clumsy means of describing what dance can express succinctly, elegantly and directly; and it becomes ever easier to disseminate photographic and video records of dancing.  But dance needs to be able to resonate beyond immediate impact on the eye; the best critical writing generates analysis and discussion of ideas and impressions to stimulate the audience’s intellect and aesthetic sense, to give depth to our knowledge and richness to our emotional response, not just to one particular dance but to dancing in general.

Choreographers and performers need the qualitative evidence that written accounts provide, not only as valuable feedback on artistic endeavour, but to give context and counterbalance to the answer to that bald bean-counter question of funding evaluations “how many people will be/were affected by your project?”  The companies mentioned above may have performed disappointingly from this limited numerical perspective, but the quality and professionalism of their work deserves fuller acknowledgement.  More than pre-manufactured stereotypical marketing hype, a sincerely considered critical response can be a powerful tool to convince theatres to programme and persuade future audiences to see for themselves.

So let us celebrate and thank those who write about dances, who record the performances they see and share their thoughts about the artform they love.  If print media can no longer find space for their perceptions, they are welcome online. Oxford Dance Writers exists as a space to shed light on the hidden but surprisingly extensive dance culture of Oxford, inform the curious as well as the enthusiast, and allow us to share and reflect together on those events that we cannot always get to see ourselves.

If there is an inner dance writer in you struggling to emerge here are two suggestions to encourage you to jump in the deep end:

Read Observer dance critic Luke Jennings’ account ‘How I became a dance critic’:

Sign up to be a reviewer for Resolution! at The Place next January to February:

Your thoughts, however brief, on the dances you see are always welcome here – looking forward to hearing from you…