Another exploratory, innovative and exciting programme of original dance work has just been presented at Oxford’s Old Fire Station Theatre under the aegis of Donald Hutera. Hutera’s remarkable ability to gather together able but neglected choreographic skills and to present them in a continually-changing four-day programme has already been demonstrated at the nearby Burton Taylor Studio. On this latest occasion, however, despite there being no diminution in the range of remarkably distinctive approaches on offer, the overall impact was far more cohesive.

For this three elements seem primarily responsible. The first is the universality of the myth and legend on which much of the work draws; the second is the power – on a bare stage – of the overall visual impact of each of these pieces, and the third is the extraordinary range of emotional intensity evoked by the quality of these performances – drawing chuckles and tears and the long silence of chastened realisation that precedes the best appreciative applause.

Yet the programme opened with something neither mythic nor intense: an un-danced monologue in rueful broken English from Aliki Mbakoyianni (the alter ego of  Lorna V) on the ways in which dance helps the ordinary people of places like Greece and Argentina to stay sane amid their many troubled existences. Drawing on personal experience of both countries, this rambling discursive piece might in other hands have lost the audience. Yet by its humour and thoughtful, layered thinking, we were warmed, amused and drawn in – rendered receptive and open to the whole programme.

There followed next two performers exploring Sati: the legend, bride, widow and the awful reality behind an immolation practice banned in 1829, but still a force experienced by some Indian women even in the present century. During this extract from a longer programme, singer Linda Shanovitch and dancer Arunima Kumar, both of compelling power, operating under red down lighters – raised celebration and blood, joy and fire in a kind of reconstructed madness. The mesmeric voice and precise, flickering fingers transported the deep rhythmic pounding of belled feet to a legendary time and space – and then, with a simple projected painting, hurtled us back to experience the reality: the bride’s more universal emotions: of joy on marriage, grief at the death of a husband and then, in a state of emotional shock, the immediate psychological and social pressure to conform to this ancient and barbaric rite of self destruction on that husband’s pyre.

A length of red and gold fabric served her for bridal veil, dead spouse and consuming flames – but the traditional black suit she wore was also joined at legs and crotch by a scarlet, pleated divider, initially like a sash end but one that opened a gaping wound at the dividing of her legs. Exacting movements, powerful mimetic skills and a mobile face complemented the singer’s increasingly strident and tragic narrative – and the role that the singer also undertook of chorus – of a social pressure implacable as fate. I watched and hugged my own body in vain attempt to avoid the inexorable climax and grieved at the widow’s final, broken lapse from life.

So powerful was this experience that I was glad of a period of recovery before Salah El Brogy began – particularly as he too made heavy, rhythmic inroads into cycles of strong emotion. Once again the use of two simple garments – a dark galabeya and a green and red shawl – expressed the assumption of roles and of relationships across many generations and many places – the interconnected love of father and son – and the sense of lives enhanced but confined by that “two-way ticket” of affection. Less focused on narrative than on cycles of “love, giggling, guiding” and death, this complex piece proved harder to shape. Inevitably perhaps, even given this performer’s control as a dancer, control of such a piece’s artistic structure was less easy to achieve.

Throughout the entire evening, work was dominated by an overwhelming desire for the investigation and conceptualisation of just such complexities. It underpinned each piece, drew on personal experience, infused the simplest storyline. Opening the second half for example, to the rhythmic sound of breaking waves, a pile of coloured fabric lay heaped on the floor, just visible through a covering of white fibrous tissue, and revealing just such another conceptualisation. In contrast to the bursts of piped laughter and human conversation, the pile resolved itself into an organic, breathing form – and then gave slow birth to the exploring limbs of a limp-winged but potentially beautiful orange insect, emerging from its white fibrous chrysalis like a fledgling from its shell. Without a bird’s fostering parent to aid the process, this butterfly child (by Ana Barbour) fought to find its way out of the smothering confines of a darkened room, towards a fissure of light and into maturity. The crack of light projected onto the rear curtains of the set looked full of promise. Yet though it expanded, window-like, across the stage, it never allowed egress to the open air and freedom, and baffled, desperate wing-beats filled the room. Hands over her empty mouth she struggled on, the sense of entrapment echoing similar experiences in the earlier dances. The insect’s plight remained painful and unresolved – as it often is in the natural world.

I could have wished this piece had lasted longer.

But the piece that followed offered some unexpected relief. Though in outcome no less tragic than many earlier pieces, this portrayal of the god Pan – in hot pursuit of the nymph Syrinx – was riven with comic elements. Facing away from the audience on a bare stage – and playing both roles in a fused, but never confusing, narrative – Susie Crow began by presenting the nymph: a devotee of Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, with bow of horn to hunt the horned stag through the green glades. The transition between the two roles was assisted by the lighting – by the red pulsating presence of a fun-loving Pan, lively and lecherous, sporting his own pair of horns and perky tail – of both of which, though existing only in mime, he appeared inordinately proud – and, flaunting them, became in turn a hunter of the virgin nymph.

He made repeated attempts to seize her slender form. She flees it, stands half hidden peeping from behind a tree that the dancer draws with a single gesture. Though many had succumbed to his wishes before her, this nymph is having none of him, backing protesting away as he advances, but not allowed, alas, to say no. Arriving in her flight at the river clearly flowing at the feet of the audience, she halts, trapped, tries even to enter the water through the encompassing reeds. A sense of pure panic crosses her face – a blind prayer of desperation to the river god.

And at that prayer the dancer underwent an extraordinarily moving metamorphosis, drawing herself up taut, imprisoned tightly in the straight-jacket of a reed – her life supposedly saved from muddy death – a woman striving to avoid the fate mapped out for her gender by gods and men. Yet bursting through the reeds behind her steps the pursuant Pan – and for a moment he appears frustrated by her ruse: it gives him pause. Then, crudely seizing a whole bunch of reeds from the precise spot where she vanished, with ruthless hand he cuts them down and just as quickly binds them with a cord, his face full of a triumphant delight.

Possession fills his soul. He owns the stems as pipes and, breathing across them, makes their stolen voice his own, with pursed lips and gleeful grin – her tragedy his gain, her death his life. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport – and, repeatedly, as men take the role of gods in these myths, it is the death of woman that results.

It was therefore a relief to reflect that, though called WOMEN GOLIVE, this evening had not offered a programme entirely performed by women – that the producer seeking here to allow these under-represented choreographers a voice (and women of varied ages and races were all represented) was himself a man, and that he had proclaimed in his introductory remarks that these were voices – and bodies – that should be heard.

And it was satisfying that the last two pieces produced offered more modern images of womanhood – and that the first of these showed women working to their strengths, in partnership and immediacy. Dancer Cecilia Macfarlane and cellist Jacqueline Johnson meet for a wordless and improvised encounter, conversed there in dance and music on equal terms – and with shared interest and good humour in a full exchange. It was lovely to see the tentative cellist being encouraged by the more mature dancer to expand on her ideas, to stretch herself to the full tonal range, and to give her views their right expression. It was a conversation honest, open and full of a mutual respect for each other’s life vision and its expression – and, had we dropped in to hear them over coffee on another day, it must surely have been just as interesting – just as much a privilege – to be present, and nothing of their real rapport would have materially changed.

This security in women’s normal discourse was a relief after the pain of some of the earlier encounters – and it allowed us to reset our own emotional calibration before the final dance by the more youthful Hanna Wroblewski. Perched precariously on a stool in a virginal pleated dress with a dark halter – and surmounted by a red-headed coiffure that shed its glitter gems like bridal confetti – Hanna enjoyed an equally tentative, uncertain and even consciously hazardous exploration of what she might safely – and less safely – do without ever descending from her precarious pedestal: what balancing acts were open to her – how much leg (or covered crotch) she should expose – how give herself a voice. When finally bent right backwards over that platform, Iphigenia laid out upon an altar, and with her face steadily transformed into some strange inverted other – only then did she seem able to speak clearly and to sing of her own “sweet dreams”.

It bespoke a painfully distorted and hard-won freedom for even the most modern young woman.

Barbara Berrington

15th July 2016

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