It’s always good to see students taking the initiative in the arts, and this is a great example. It takes little independent thinking to put on a Shakespeare play, though I’m not saying it’s easy, and still less so to do Pinter or Sarah Kane. To found an undergraduate contemporary dance company, apparently organising from scratch, must have required a good deal of determination, and for this Dream Again’s Artistic Director, Emily Romain, is to be very highly commended. But despite showing potential, the first show from the all female group, a mixed bill based loosely on themes from the myth of Persephone, seems less than it could have been, had music choices and some specifics of the choreography been better.

Martha Masoero’s Spring is an abstract piece, done for the most part in a classical language. We focus on the ensemble, costumed in dark shorts and plain tops, and usually in groups of four to six, rather than in solos or duets. Oddly though, maybe ten minutes in, postures get into the work that look like they could have come from a musical. The dancers lie down on their front, chin in hands, and kick their legs in the air as if they were chorus girls. Other poses are hardly modest and look almost out of burlesque. I assume these are put in deliberately, and ironically, but in aid of what? Assumed so abruptly I’m surprised no one in the theatre laughed. The programme notes tell us this dance “explores the multiple facets of one’s personality in a journey through memories of a happier and innocent past” but that leaves me none the wiser, though it is presumably the thinking behind another, more successful idea, when four performers all blindfold their partners. I’m not sure the choice of music, a mix of crooning songs, helped much either. Masoero might have done better if working to more sophisticated music that would have seemed let down if not matched to equally good choreography.

Roots, by Romain herself, is a narrative piece, simply telling the story of Persephone’s rape by Hades, god of the Underworld, and her eventual return to her mother, the fertility goddess Demeter. Costumes are Grecian slips, and the dancing in the first scene, Persephone out in the meadows with her friends, is also clearly after the wood-nymph school. The trouble that an all female company was always going to hit with this particular myth is how to present the god of the underworld. Hades carrying off Persephone is such a common subject throughout the history of art that one’s own treatment can be underwhelming, but when there is no male to stand in for the god, there really are problems. Here a darkly dressed woman approached the young girl and led her offstage to the underworld while Persephone’s shocked face appeared in close up in film projected onto the rear wall. It wasn’t exactly Bernini, and there was no trace of the violence a man could have brought to it – perhaps a male actor could have been press-ganged into miming the role? In this piece the soundtrack of vague ambient music (such as you hear if you turn the radio on at 3am) had a soporific effect that made it hard to focus on what you were looking at on stage, and can’t have set down much of a challenge to the choreographer. The dancers usually don’t make themselves noticed as individuals, apart from Bronwyn Tarr (Demeter) who has a solo with crooked, anguished lines, but even she is unconvincing as an actress during the emotional scene after her daughter’s return.

Rain, on which Romain and Masoero collaborated, is perhaps more successful. It starts with the ensemble drawn up in rows across the stage, standing with feet wide apart and arms stretched out; the effect that of some primitive dance to a weather god. Live music is provided by percussionist Griffith Rees, and the performers themselves drumming with their heels. The dancers fling their arms about madly and stare fixedly ahead and the scene is dramatic in a way the rest of the evening hasn’t been, but unfortunately Rain doesn’t go on like that. A more contemporary idiom is used here – movements are now quite angular, without regard to a classical logic or balletic arrangement; this plays to the dancers’ technical strengths, but the ambient music reappears and lets the whole thing down. Few choreographic ideas are as memorable as the first, and the initial pose, though it crops up again, is not really developed. There is a worthy attempt at getting more media closely involved when the cast take apart and reassemble a pile of boxes upstage, but like the kitsch poses in Spring, this bit of dance-theatre struck me as not properly integrated.

It’s a shame this triple bill isn’t a complete success because it could be such a good advertisement for dance to the rest of the university. However, I wish Dream Again the very best of luck, and hope they go on to make stronger work. I am sure they can if, firstly, they use some decent music, and secondly, if they let the dance do the talking on its own, and learn to say everything they need to in just the dance. The programme notes speak of an intellectual process divorced from the art. Rain did not “explore the breakdown of the self”, nor is Persephone’s state as a “changed woman” after her return to the Over-world much in evidence. Once Dream Again have got that sorted they ought to be a really useful resource, eliminating a gap in the university performing arts scene that really shouldn’t be there.

Thomas Stell

5th February 2013