Kim Brandstrup’s residency at St Hilda’s last week was a rare opportunity to observe part of the process of creating new dances through a series of open workshops and two ‘showings’. When I crept into the Gallery of the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building on Tuesday the atmosphere below was quiet and studious. Brandstrup sat on the edge of the stage. Behind him, dancer Liam Francis was silently stretching, curling and extending his body, waiting his turn, while Simone Damberg Würtz and Tobias Praetorius used the specially-laid dance floor to work on a duet. It gradually became apparent that the dancers, the choreographer and cellist and composer Oliver Coates were collaboratively investigating questions about the relationship between rhythm, music and dance.

From the Gallery, I watched as Brandstrup, Damberg Würtz and Praetorius created a dance to Coates’ new composition Isthmus. Cinematographers Ardeshir Ab and Domenika Besinska filmed while the dancers tried out new material, keeping some, rejecting some and saving some for later. Before each re-iteration of a passage, Damberg Würtz quickly ran through the sequence using ballet terminology and her hands to mark the steps. After a little while, Brandstrup gave Francis a recording of some music and asked him to use it to work on new material outside in the reception area. As I left shortly afterwards, I overheard Francis tell Brandstrup that he ‘had something’.

At the first ‘showing’, on Wednesday, Brandstrup generously explained the working method he was using to experiment with ways of creating new work. He defined the indivisible elements of dance are action and stillness, and last week he was seeking to capture that most compelling moment, which occurs in the instant before a dancer beings to move; the point at which all the energy is gathered up and focussed, like the moment of suspense on stage before the curtain rises. Brandstrup’s choreographic method involves the use of problem solving exercises with his dancers, requiring them to move, or not to move, according to sequences of counts. (Francis demonstrated one extraordinary sequence of unbroken movement that was 27 counts long). Dancers’ counts are not necessarily the same as musicians’ counts; at one point Coates pointed out that where he, as a musician, heard a ‘three’ and a ‘three’, the dancers found a ‘four’ and ‘two’. Brandstrup was looking for the split second before the very first count.

It is a commonplace to link mathematics and music, but Brandstrup’s work highlights mathematical aspects of dance. While he does not appear particularly to draw upon the geometry of floor patterns, the binary concepts of action and stillness, the active and the passive and the complex numerical counting patterns and rhythms are clearly mathematical. I was interested by the way in which he used dance almost as another line in the music. He demonstrated this with a piece of Scarlatti, in which the dancers took it in turns to dance different sequences to just one of the musical parts from the same composition. This springs from his method of setting a pattern of counts and working with the dancer to create movement to that numerical pattern, which may then be danced to different musical accompaniments. It is as if the need to concentrate so intensely on the arithmetical format releases the dancer’s subconscious so that he or she can embody the music in movement.

The practice of dance is not part of Oxford University’s academic tradition, but this residency showed that it should be. It was a week of serious enquiry and research, by experts in their fields, into the relationship between dance and music, using a methodology that combines both theory and practice. Thank you, St Hilda’s, DANSOX, and Professor Susan Jones for bringing this exceptional event to Oxford.

Maggie Watson

25 July 2016