In my opinion the most remarkable of this year’s Dancin’ Oxford festival events, out of those I saw, was Decreasing Infinity, an evening of classical Indian dance and contemporary work at the Pegasus Theatre. First came two pieces for a solo male dancer in the Bharatanatyam dance form of the Tamil Nadu region in South India. It is very energetic and virile, with a lot of stamping, turning, and flexing of the hands. The stamps especially show great power, as if the force of the movement goes right into the ground below the dancer. Legs are held bent at the knee for long periods. The strength held in the thighs seems quite superhuman. In the jumps the dancer’s torso remains at the same height, moving only horizontally. He seems held up by the energy he has taken from the ground, while the legs move from stamp to stamp independently.

The Odissi style that we saw in the following dances was more lyrical, shown us by a female dancer. The work of the lower body was still strong and heavy, but the hands, the crooked arms like those of a shadow puppet, moved delicately. The dances seemed a maze of precisely executed symbolic gestures, all part of a mysterious narrative we sometimes thought became clear to us, but which at other times we were just happy to marvel at. All the classical pieces were accompanied by recorded music also in classical Indian styles.

Decreasing Infinity, performed in the second half, mixes Kathak influence with that of contemporary dance, making a new form out of the two. Two male performers go through what seems a confrontation, sometimes a simple display of masculine power. It is a good work, but I don’t believe as successful as those just before it. The music is live beat boxing. Bigg Taj, the musician, accompanies each gesture with a whooshing or a thumping sound that suits it. The intention seems to be to magnify each movement, the movement of limbs so strong it produces sound of itself, and this is well done early on, but the effect does wear off after a while. It is not as impressive as the leg work in the Bharatanatyam, the solidity of which magnifies each movement of its own accord, leaving the music free to do its own thing, and sometimes go into counterpoint with the dance. That said there are moments not easily forgotten. The stamps in this piece, with the dancer standing upright, make the whole body shake. The two men face off against each other in overlapping pools of light, or they repeat the rhythm of the dance to each other as vocalised sounds.

A few days previously the theatre had hosted Moving with the Times, a showcase of dance from local artists. The most successful was Triple-Entendre, danced by Ségolène Tarte and Laura Addison. Both are very technically accomplished, particularly evident in the first, balletic part. Their movements follow jagged lines, mimicked by crosses in strips of light on the floor, and bands of light projected onto the back wall. The whole design is elegant and minimalist.

It’ll turn up was a work of dance-theatre from company Ellyfish & Things. It took the theme “happiness” and went from there. Cue excerpts from an Alan Watts Lecture, placards with “there is no path to happiness, it is the path” and the like, and some “happy” dancing. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Perhaps it was really a children’s piece? But I don’t think many children find Alan Watts appealing. Perhaps it was all meant ironically? We’re given no reason to think so. The trouble is you can’t take something as vague as “happiness” and make good art out of it. If you try, everything you create will be trite and simplistic. When Pina Bausch made Café Müller, I do not believe she began by saying to herself “I know what’ll be a good idea, something about pain and human relationships.” If she had, Café Müller would have been awful. You can start with very specific stories or memories, things with some ambiguity in them, or purely formal ideas, coming, say, from an accompanying piece of music, but obvious, simplistic themes lead to obvious, simplistic images.

Stone’s Throw and Inertia suffered from the same problems. The first, from AnaMorphic Dance Theatre was a show about our paths through life. We leave behind us, as we are told by one of the performers, “a trail of stones”. This image dominates the work. Dancers come on stage dropping stones behind them and repeating stories from their childhood. One lays out a circle of them. Again, it was all too blunt and rather trite, being made worse in respect of the latter quality by film projections of children at play. Inertia, more simply, had taken the wrong things as its inspiration. It began with speech about the scientific theory of inertia. It may well be possible to use a scientific idea as the basis of a dance performance, but if you do I think the idea should be absorbed by the dancers and expressed entirely in the dance. Otherwise you get a disjunction between the thought behind the dance and the dance itself. This then led us to “inertia” as it’s perhaps more usually understood – a simple inability or indisposition to move. Somehow going from an exposition of the law of inertia to the difficulty of getting out of bed in the morning jarred.

At the festival’s end the Jasmin Vardimon Company visited the Playhouse with their show Freedom. It is an exploration of the idea of freedom in a series of brief, not directly connected scenes, which unfold in a dreamlike, tropical landscape. This atmosphere is to a great extent the product of the set – two huge constructions of hanging white industrial tubes, having a weird, postmodern beauty to them, lit as if through the branches of a rainforest. The work of the dancers themselves was mixed. There was something satisfying in the way a fairly simple movement sequence, in which the dances charged onto the stage, placed a hand on the floor and span round it, was used to imply quite different bits of narrative. When first used it represented simple exuberance, a few scenes later it was executed by the company as they ducked from a bird-shaped shadow that flew just above them, then the dancers employed it in chasing one of their number, a woman, as if they were hounds. Beyond this however, there wasn’t much that was formally interesting, and in the less dance-like sequences the ideas became kitsch. A recreation of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed protest was quite funny but too bluntly a manifestation of the theme of the piece. A long narration about a mermaid that is captured by an evil rabbit, accompanied by fairly inexpert shadow puppetry, made me cringe. There were good bits, notably a swan out of the Tchaikovsky ballet getting her arms trapped in two of the tubes that constitute the set, but they were outnumbered by images too crudely related to the title theme.

At its first performances in the November of last year Freedom was criticised by the dance critics of many national papers as very obviously sub-Pina Bausch. Perhaps everything that is obviously derivative of something else is really never more than a misunderstanding of the thing it seems inspired by. That at any rate was what I’d say was wrong with Freedom. Take the two choreographers’ use of speech. The dancers’ speech here was simple and childish rather than absurdist – one girl comes on stage at regular interval to infuriate us with “I want to tell you a story”. Similar can be said of the dancing. Vardimon’s work didn’t have Pina Bausch’s emotional force in it. Throughout there was never any of the latter’s strange, cruel beauty and minute observation of ordinary life. You got the sense Vardimon had just started with the abstract idea of freedom, possibly because of strong political feelings, and tried to go straight from idea into the dance-theatre without properly examining the elements out of which she was to create her artwork. That is, human emotion as it appears in real life instances, and how that emotion can be expressed on stage in movement and words.

Perhaps I’ve dealt too harshly with the local work in Moving with the Times, treating them in the same way I would have that of more prestigious artists, but I don’t believe I have. We saw with Freedom that the problems with most of those pieces, ie. unhelpful points of inspiration and triteness and simplicity of images, are problems that can be found in the work of even a well respected company that performs all over Europe, and are therefore problems that need to be discussed. We saw with Triple-Entendre that provincial dance can be very good. At the risk of seeming to force a message out of the fairly random selection of Dancin’ Oxford pieces I saw, I’d say the Oxford scene could learn a lot from the Balbir Singh Dance Company, the group behind Decreasing Infinity. All were technically extremely capable, and if their contemporary piece was not up to the standard of their Classical dance, it was still very good and still certainly on the right track. The dance was about dance, not about happiness or inertia, and I think all good dance, even when it is also about something else, even when it tells a story or illustrates the structures of a piece of music, even when it is combined with spoken text, necessarily has dance, in a sense, as its subject.

Thomas Stell

18th March 2013