Getting a ticket to a dance programme arouses comfortable expectations of pleasure – of colour, patterning and conformity. In Oxford’s Burton Taylor studio last week, Donald Hutera’s GOlive programme was satisfyingly full of all of these – but it was also never predictable, oddly fragmented and often deeply unsettling. And in my head the after-images are of faces as much as of body shapes – a heat of emotional impact – a sense of hope – a touch of catharsis.

The very ordering of the programme forced strange juxtapositions. It began with what Shane Shambhu described as his “lecture-demonstration” – a cogent dance drama through which his personal narrative wove a coherent thread. Twenty-seven years of bharatanatyam dance gave his work an assured technical underpinning. But it was its immediacy and variety that made it so accessible to academic, pensioner and child in the fifty-strong studio audience. For this was a narrative that flowed by Nritta – by taps and clicks and thumps – through sounds vocal and guttural – as well as by the mime and dance of Natya, the shifting registers of formal delivery, of conversational English, of interactive name games and the musicality of Shane’s native Kerala tongue. Never before have I been more aware of dance as one member of so intimately interconnected a family of languages.

This was an exposition that set the tone for the diverse blend of sounds, movements, mythologies and cultures that followed – with a finale in which a trio of Welsh dancers made the transition from independent self expression, through group collaboration (reminiscent of Botticelli’s Graces, though the stated source was Picasso) towards a tentative mimetic synchrony.

The notion of East meets West was earlier made, however, by Anuradha Chaturvedi’s dance interpretation (from the Indian tradition) of an English composition, Quicksilver, by Jeremy Thurlow. To notes like resined fingers on a fragile rim, Chaturvedi offered a quavering performance in blue and gold gauze – an iterative patterned exploration of the containing space around her that felt full of a feverish fear and limitation, held tense against an imminent collapse.

Throughout the evening the most powerful work developed when such well-honed technical skill was conjoined with profound thought, strong cultural roots and an emotional intensity. For her second piece, for example – one hugely popular with the whole audience – Chaturvedi called in a colleague (Meena Selva Anand), skilled like herself in classical Indian dance, to demonstrate not only a magical interplay of shapes, sound and colour but an enviable physical control. It was that control that made possible at one point an almost satirical modern take on their own classical forms – and at another transformed a technical hitch in the music into a wonderful opportunity to re-view the opening and to compare Chaturveydi’s own refined and subtly melodic centre with the sparkling descant high notes of her dance-sister’s contribution.

The most chilling pieces, however – and those providing the strongest visual and emotional counterpoint to the sheer beauty of this Indian tradition – came from dancers each of whom was examining the dark forces rooted in Western Classical mythologies – two strands in a research project (Avid for Ovid) exploring the practices of ancient Roman pantomime. That such work was sometimes hard to access had less to do with its esoteric sources than with the dances’ efforts to plumb complexities in the human condition. For each of these narratives explored a reading of the essential dualities of human nature – and of our corresponding efforts to understand on the one hand the godlike nature of man, (Tisiphone) and on the other his inescapable bestiality (Lycaon).

Nor is the distinction between the two dualisms at all clear cut – as we were made aware. In Shades of Tisiphone Susie Crow has fused the ancient goddess of divine vengeance with the dead emptiness of the murdered victim. The protagonist swings grotesquely between the desire for vengeance upon the perpetrator of evil (a witch-hunt) and a commemoration of the lost soul. It requires us to focus on the loss innate in any revenge killing – that of the murderer as well as that of his victim. Victim, perpetrator of evil and Goddess of Vengeance are suddenly all implicated in death – cannot avoid contamination.

Tisiphone, therefore, is the goddess-victim. As goddess she must impose on any murderer the weighty death stroke consequent on his guilt – and his mortality. As victim she will wish some goddess might come and judge and punish. But when stepping, with a dancer’s fastidious care, out of the victim’s tomb, she knows no resurrection. Rather, in stepping over the bodies of the no-longer-living, she asserts (with a musical squeal) not herself but her presence as vengeance: grows, feeds and breathes that vengeance, bending over the tomb to claim her right to avenge. Calling now for the goddess to aid and to inhabit her, she invokes an immortal’s strength, settles it on her own shoulders, ritualises its power by repetition and owns the space about her. She dominates the stage – enjoying her new-found power. She draws upon the audience, as on her followers, for support – sets up in mime a doorway to action [limines constitera][1] and even makes sacrifice [hostes rem viscera feruntur]. With the fores of the other doorpost set up, she rises and circles ready to swoop. Yet the very thought makes her stumble – causes her to remember her now body-less state [exsangues, sine corpore et ossibus]. She demonstrates that dislocated and enfeebled state – dances it out. A brief release of energy and purpose at the front of the acting space is almost immediately rendered hollow. A single diagonal bar of light reveals her – as both victim and avenger – lying impotent yet monstrous . . . and afraid [territus est].   On such a hunt for vengeance as she is poised to join, she must also join (in her deed as an avenging murderess) the one she seeks to kill. Hung out on the pendulum of this dilemma, she sways uncertainly between her options and her roles – loses momentum – winds to inaction – and is lost. Whether hammered into the ground or forced to flee [dumque locum fugis], she must concede that in achieving vengeance there is no victory – only the second loss of a purposeful existence.

Crow’s presence on the stage exuded power through balletic control. It inhabited and enclosed the whole space within which she operated, compelling an atmosphere of dread that grew and throve within the room. Dead eyes in a blank stare, limbs that crumpled and dissolved – the dead emptiness of the victim of violence from whom nothing could remove the sense of hopelessness – but yet of menace – emanated from her mask-like, grey-lit face. This was a tremendously complex and riven performance, fraught with uncertainties and ambiguity. It is impossible to know if I have read it right.

Yet in this reading, I have been steered in part at least by the rendition of a second mythic figure – actually staged earlier in the programme. Another composite encounter but here not a goddess tarnished by humanity but a man marred by bestiality – and perhaps, therefore, a little easier to read.

In its clarity, Segolene Tarte’s Lycaon was unquestionably the most compelling performance of the evening. So terrifying was its narrative and visual power that a child of about eight or nine sought refuge from the auditorium. Lycaon, taut and erect in an orange-red muslin chiton, with a contrasting stole in cream over her left shoulder, enters the space as a tall, pleasant-faced woman with classically braided hair. But, her back to the audience, the figure morphs, becomes a force with neither sex nor name, assumes a blank cream half-mask and an air of authority, which she extends, on turning, to control the whole room. So imperious a mien does she maintain that it is hard not to leap up in obedience to the commanding crooking of her finger – albeit a command to die. The figure then assumes a crown, the bracelets of power, the levelled lance of royal justice – and, at the height of its power, it sacrifices before us – and then tastes – the animalised form of its bundled-up cream shawl.

At once the light grows cold, the figure drops its shawl and then, animal-like itself, both gnaws and worries it. Both feast and sacrifice lend to the figure strength and power – and yet, to see what it has done, it stands aghast – looks inward to condemn the madness it has fed. But no way out remains. High spectral voices chatter in our ears. Ripped asunder, destroyed by what it has become, the figure starts upstage, tries for a recover, but can scarcely move aright. Beneath the pallid half-mask, a tongue flickers. Teeth bare whitely. Gathering up the shawl as what she cannot now avoid – she turns away, and yet is pulled straight back. Again we have a pendulum: the mythic figure hangs between the identities of man and beast, the momentum for true change always fading. She even tries to grasp the shadowed half-presence of the bundled cloth – out on the edges of real shape. The dancer leaves the stage. The shawl is left behind. It is unalterably bathed in blood-red light.

Each of these two dancers – and perhaps all dance – explores a chimeric duality. It might seem very much in tune with notions of the modern super-hero – or the ambiguously morphing werewolf – and yet felt far, far older and more sinister. Each shared with us the same essential interest – modern and mythic – in an exploration of complexities. Through the artistic fusion of seemingly disparate forms – of man with beast or woman with goddess – there emerged the opportunity to present, in an unending tense exchange, the endlessly opposed elements of our own nature.

Barbara Berrington

23rd July 2015

[1] The quotations heard on the accompaniment appear to come from a variety of sources: Virgil, Ovid etc.

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