The concentrated format of recent editions of Dancin’ Oxford has made it seem more like a festival, generating excitement through a swift succession of varied events and usually one night stands; however with that comes the difficulty of invidious choices, what to see and attend, and regrets at performances missed.  Particularly an issue for dance where much regular activity is squeezed into the evenings and weekends rather than the normal working day, and dance lovers and practitioners must therefore choose between doing and viewing.  Cheering to report that despite this a couple of shows by popular local performers managed to sell out, making me for one less guilty about not having been able to support them from the audience.  I chose to focus on the interaction of science and dance, a dominant theme of this year’s festival, with plenty of opportunities for questions and discussion.

Not to be missed was the visit to Oxford Playhouse of Wayne McGregor’s company Random Dance on 3rd and 4th March in his 2013 work Atomos which has been touring internationally. I must confess that despite the undoubted physical prowess of the dancers, I was left unmoved by this work, alienated by the flailing busyness of its movement, which in its solipsistic self-absorption crowded out a potentially intriguing soundscape by A Winged Victory for the Sullen.  A programme note by anthropologist James Leach talks about the piece exploring relationship and response; his wording which talks of bodies and “human entities” rather than persons seems apt, as dancers groped and manipulated each other’s limbs, never looking each other in the eye and without apparent regard for any emotional or social significance to their actions, the objectified body simply a mechanism to distort. The work had been made using the dancers’ response to the presence of an innovatory interactive digital “body” in the studio; but other than the mechanistic nature of much of the material it is hard to say from viewing the finished work what this has added. Similarly an interlude in which video screens descended from above with transmission of 3D film by Ravi Deepres (not helped by the fact that my 3D glasses didn’t work) seemed to have little purpose beyond giving the dancers a break. A dancing colleague observed afterwards that normally she is aware when watching dance of her body’s instinctive empathetic “twitch”; but that this intellectual exercise despite its physicality had no such effect.

The following week at St Hilda’s College a well timed DANSOX event on 10th March gave Oxford dance enthusiasts a chance to hear the man himself explaining his work in fluid conversation with engaging neuroscientist Dr Phil Barnard, expertly chaired by curator and arts producer Eckhard Thiemann. McGregor is supremely articulate and the account of his collaboration with Barnard and other scientists over the years was seductive as it traced on-going exploration of how dancers think and make decisions through empirical experiments in the studio, and charted the development of their ability to give voice to their tacit knowledge in the process of constructing McGregor’s choreography. Barnard spoke of his admiration at McGregor’s speed of choreographic decision making, and ability to transform random chaos into order; but the question remained in my mind as to what criteria inform McGregor’s selection and arrangement of movement material; and a suspicion that prioritisation of the fascinating process of research outweighed the need to produce a coherent dance work with something to communicate to an audience in a theatre.

On Sunday 8th March Dance and Academia in coordination with the contemporaneous Oxfordshire Science Festival presented Science and Dance – Finding Commonalities, a one day conference bringing together scientists and dance practitioners to hear about and debate recent research both scientific and choreographic. The back room at the Jam Factory was too cramped to contain this lively gathering, which would have benefitted from a more generous space to allow for movement as well as discussion, better facilities for watching video footage, and a separate space for refreshments and conversation. Bronwyn Tarr, a member of Oxford University’s Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group, but also a keen and accomplished dancer, got the proceedings off to an animated start with an account of her doctoral research investigating how dancing in synchrony can increase social bonding, and the involvement in this of neurohormones such as endorphins. We were drawn in by participating in simple group experiments, as well as challenging discussion.

Subathra Subramaniam is the rarest of individuals, combining careers as Bharata Natyam dancer, science teacher at her local secondary school, and choreographer and director of Sadhana Dance. Driven by a belief that dance has an important role to play in increasing the public understanding of science, she talked through a series of research projects and resulting performance works; The Shiver, Elixir, and Under My Skin, the latter, seen recently at the North Wall, exploring the choreographed processes and routines of surgeons in the operating theatre. It seemed that such imaginative pairings of scientific questions with dance skills and approaches had the capacity not only to open up scientific thinking, but also to elicit moving pieces of theatre.

Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge Nicky Clayton and artist and writer Clive Wilkins gave a playful presentation, using their skills as attuned tango dancers to raise our awareness of the processes of memory and wordless thought, public and private, and the extraordinary amount of information received through physical touch. Like the Random dancers, they did not look each other in the eye; but there was no mistaking the sensitive bodily listening, attending to shared weight, touch and impulse, that the flow of their improvised dances together required.

The day’s speakers were joined by Morten Kringelbach from Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Associate Professor of Modern Drama for a final discussion chaired by conference convenor Miranda Laurence, putting the arts’ engagement with science into a wider context, and touching on some of the more problematic aspects of collaboration, which despite talk of “knowledge exchange” can seem an unbalanced relationship.  One could only marvel at the resources that science can bring to creative projects, which our Cinderella art form alone could never match; but as a practitioner I remain wary of the instrumental use of dance to serve other agendas, perhaps at the expense of its own logic, worldview and concerns.

On Friday 6th March at the Pegasus by contrast dance was definitely calling the shots in a different type of collaboration, bringing together the crisp yet sinuous Bharata Natyam of Ash Mukherjee, and Sonia Sabri’s sparkling Kathak in dialogue, with music which spanned a range between Indian and Western classical and their fusion. A wonderful opportunity to register the contrast between these classical Indian dance forms first in more traditional settings, and then in Labyrinth, a collaborative duet, in which two powerful performers come together in a freely structured meditation on death and self doubt. Afterwards it was a pleasure to hear such knowledgeable and dedicated dancers talking about their art. A highlight of the evening Mukherjee’s Lullaby, set to one of Erik Satie’s Gnossienes; standing at the front of the stage, sharing with us through delicate and precise gesture and facial expression a shifting poetic narrative of fleeting emotions, telling the stories that only dance can tell.

Susie Crow

20th March 2015

You can read reviewer Maggie Watson’s response to Atomos here, and Nicholas Minns’ review here.