Following earlier reflections on new narrative dance works, it has been interesting to see dance/theatre pieces that turn their attention to the stories and dilemmas of dancers themselves, and in doing so test different theatrical formats…

As part of Oxford’s summer half term explosion of dance performances Break the Floorboards (in Punjabi “Chak De Phatte” or “go for it”) at the Oxford Playhouse brought an entertaining and upbeat mix of Bollywood and street dance to tell the story of young Zain who wants to be a dancer.  Torn between loyalty to his British Asian family and community and the encouragement of liberated street dancer Sophie who exemplifies the freedom to pursue a gift and a dream, Zain has to confront difficult realities and becomes caught in troubled situations before a hopeful resolution.

The Rifco Arts team have devised a play with dancing, for performers trained in both drama and dance (Daniel Uppal playing Zain the exception, a fluid dancer in his first acting role), with recorded music and songs by Sumeet Chopra.  A bright multipurpose set allows for fast moving narrative action in dialogue and dance routines with rapid changes of location, the six performers playing multiple roles with the help of swiftly donned hoodies, baseball caps and headscarves, manoeuvring Mum’s sofa on and off stage tirelessly.  I enjoyed their physical energy and conviction and swift sketches both in words and movement of colourful characters, bringing life to the contemporary social issues being explored.  In particular Sheena Patel, switching back and forth between worried Mum and a bossy young woman in thrall to social media, touched the heart as well as engendered giggles.  At its best this show demonstrated how dialogue and dance might work effectively together to enrich understanding of a story; a gently romantic Bollywood duet of reminiscence told a touching tale of Mum’s love, marriage and disillusionment, providing without words a powerful emotional back story to domestic argument with her sons, the angry Adil and confused Zain.

Oxford’s New Theatre in June hosted three performances of Strictly Confidential, a touring live show spin-off from the popular television series devised and directed by Craig Revel Horwood.  The impetus behind it to reveal something more of the professional dancers who support, coach and partner the celebrity contestants through the competition process, and whom the public have increasingly taken to their hearts.  Chirpy actress Lisa Riley provides a central figure and compere, her story a framework to a variety show structure of dances, sketches and short scenes addressing the public.  In addition to a range of Latin and ballroom based numbers the three featured dancers, Ian Waites, Natalie Lowe and Artem Chigvintsev all have monologues about their lives and careers; providing thematic material from which the dances emerge, moving away from the exigencies of competition rules and specific forms, crossing boundaries with musical theatre.  Two supplementary dance couples provide backing and additional non-speaking characters, and an onstage band of six impressively versatile musicians both accompanies and joins in the verbal and danced action as required – most notably in a whacky ensemble enactment of the plotline of Emmerdale in which Lisa Riley had starred.

A single set with multiple lightbulbs, gauze curtain and projection screen conveys a familiar sense of Strictly in the television studio, supported by a succession of costume changes and some glitzy frocks.  As in Break the Floorboards, these performers worked hard, keeping up the razzamatazz and conveying a sense of larger numbers than in reality were there through use of the whole group in occasional exuberant jazz hands ensemble numbers.  The elegant Ian Waite and dynamic Natalie Lowe, both tall, are physically well matched dancers able to shine together in flowing ballroom waltzes as well as faster Latin.  But it was disappointing that Artem Chigvintsev did not have a professional partner; cast as the gallant foil to Lisa Riley, whom I found less convincing and appealing both as dancer and personality on stage than she had appeared on screen, he had fewer opportunities to show the full extent of his creative and dancerly abilities.  A welcome exception was a passionate rumba with Natalie Lowe set to Read All About It, evoking his romantic relationship with actress Kara Tointon.  It appeared that Chigvintsev had not met the stringent physical requirements for a career in ballet in Russia; ballet’s loss has been ballroom and showbiz’s very definite gain.  Despite dancing with attack, the additional dancers fell short of the refinement of skill displayed by the three principals.

The matinee performance I saw was well attended, almost exclusively by an older audience of Strictly fans, perhaps there more for the personalities than for the dancing itself.  The style of the show encouraged cosy audience interaction and included a question and answer session with Lisa Riley, as well as family and backstage snaps and clips from the TV show. While enjoying the dancing my young guest and I remained unconvinced by the spoken life stories, at times a gratuitous list of achievements mixed with more personal information and bland gossip; without an over-arching dramatic imperative small screen chat show banality is hard to transmute into theatrical magic or intriguing choreography, and I felt uncomfortable with the inclusion in such large scale theatrical presentation of one individual’s particular personal bereavement.

For the ultimate theatrical depiction of dancers’ lives, careers and struggles there remains the peerless and unforgettable A Chorus Line, currently showing at the London Palladium.  Within the dramatic structure and narrative of a cut-throat  audition process the poignant stories of individual dancers are made both believably real and powerfully universal in thrilling songs and unforgettable dances.  Catch it while you can; it will be closing at the end of August.

Susie Crow

5th August 2013