My interest was piqued by the chance to watch a dance piece exploring issues of oppression with our current cultural context as a narrative backdrop to hold in my mind – as well as wearing multiple hats: dancer, student of psychology and working in medical research. I wondered how dance as an art form rooted in movement can offer space to explore, express, embody and perhaps come to terms with oppressive situations. How can oppression be conveyed in essence?

We are living in social and political instability resulting from the particular moment, embedded in history. It seems reasonable to propose that people of less privileged demographics – in increasing numbers and inequality – are disenfranchised, feel excluded from opportunities or have experienced discrimination from ruling class decision-making. From narrowing school curriculums, our precarious gig economy, public service and infrastructure funding cuts, NHS privatisation or divisive Brexit strategies, to name but a few examples close to home.  The repercussions of such circumstances include levels of oppression that have psychological consequences such as depression.  In a decade, the number of antidepressant prescriptions has doubled: 64.7 million in England alone last year according to NHS Digital. Increased reporting efficiency and patient demand alone are unlikely to fully explain this trend.  Reporting of higher population levels of loneliness reflect increased social isolation as a contributing factor to mental wellbeing. Yet human beings as a species have capacity for strength, creativity and resilience in the face of adversity.  Aside from pharmaceuticals, how do people find ways to cope?  The arts as a reminder of our shared humanity and imagination through challenging times seems as relevant as ever.

Directed and choreographed by Oxford-born Thomas Page, dancer at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Thomas Page Dances are a vibrant and talented collective from across established UK educational dance institutions.  C-A-G-E-D is the company’s debut work since forming in May 2016 with professional mentoring by James Pett of prolific Studio Wayne McGregor.  The piece consists of three parts with 9 dancers.  Part One: The Individual Construct, is an exploration of individual oppressions and a desperation for individuality.  Part Two: The Social Construction, reflects on oppressive events within society surrounding social issues.  Part Three: The Anatomical Construct, is devised as a biological journey of physical illness through infection.

The evening begins in the intimate setting of the theatre by subverting the idea of audience-performer relationships. Each dancer slowly emerges from the front row of stalls onto the stage, one-by-one, and sit in a similar row of seats positioned at the back of the stage. Dancers look straight ahead apprehensively, dressed all in black; poised, sleek and panther-like. A moment’s silence, the anticipation is palpable. One empty seat, a nod to the possible invisibility of oppression or how one can feel invisible when experiencing it. For me, the seat was symbolic, a call to empathy, an invitation to take part in the journey of each performer’s story that night.

First a solo, dynamically danced to original score by Simone Sistarelli, with repeated gesticulation of inward retreat such as walking with a sudden, sharp recoil of the chest in deflation. A near-constant gaze downwards is mirrored and heightened by the dancer’s lowered gaze lingering self-consciously at the back. As one solo ran its course and other dancers joined in, more seats at the back of the stage became empty, leaving the eerie presence of their absence known.

Even when jumping powerfully, they were not airborne for very long, quickly retreating back to the ground, hinting self-doubt and anxiety. In joining dancers momentarily passed each other with little exchange or open acknowledgement. The resulting impression being of individuals so stuck in their own minds they cannot fully participate in their surroundings, leaving mutual communication impossible. Although body language alluded to self-oppression, ambiguity persists here as these are well-coordinated, athletic dancers performing challenging physical sequences. I was uncertain how fully the choreography was setting up authentic experiences of embodied oppression in a narrative sense. However, an intense solo from Adriana Berwert followed which left real unease. Throwing herself wholly into every movement, Berwert teeters on the edge of the possibilities of physical balance, blurring reality and imagination in her conflicted psyche and flesh. Clawing at her body in visible desperation was a visceral gestural response to the saying feeling uncomfortable in your own skin.

Part Two is introduced with a rhythmic pulse of electronic soundscape that amplifies dancers mechanically walking within the space, hypnotic and seemingly at odds with one another. They transition from blank stares in Part One to engaging in eye contact as if to size each other up. Cast members dance provocatively in sync, reminiscent of diva swaggering in popular music videos; some appealing to having fun, some wearing uneasy facial expressions. The boom of “getting paid” lyrics resonate- an anthem to today’s economic values of productivity, consumerism and materiality. This display reminds of social commentary on the objectification of the female body and how young women especially are confronted with mixed messages about femininity and empowerment. Regardless of their embrace or lack of such values, displayed by some of their awkwardness, this is The Gospel of our times, whatever the personal cost. Finding inventive ways to shed light on these complex issues is welcome, but social representations in this dance felt like a rehashing of already over-explored imagery rather than memorable insight.

Themes of rejection and manipulation were explored firstly in a tentatively tender duet on unrequited pursuit, further complicated by triangulation. There were poignant moments danced with sincerity, though I would have liked to have seen a narrative developed by further emotional depth, which felt partial and incomplete. Secondly, a group piece with paired dancers or individuals facing an imaginary partner engaged in mirrored touch and loving gestures, which gradually became more frantic in quality until forceful and obsessive. This activity peaked to an intimate and harrowing solo performed in silence, centred around self-choking hand gestures. Writhing, circular limbs on the floor, desperate attempts to unlock hands behind the back set to shallowed, fight-or-flight breath made for uncomfortable, emotive viewing. Overall, I think Parts One and Two could have benefited from more contrast and nuance between what was construed as self-oppressive behaviour and the effects of societal and social situations of oppression.

For me, Part Three contained the most originally devised material. Illness was explored through use of a mannequin, deified posing, ritualistic behaviours, relentless rhythmic group work creating unifying patterns for biological warfare and ominous mood-building using familiar quotations with peculiar details, the latter most unexpectedly effective. Hands are a running theme throughout this work. In this section, imagery that particular stands out is when the dancers bourrée across the stage, an otherwise elegant step from classical dance vocabulary but for hands half tucked into imaginary pockets at the hips. Soldiers ready for combat – microbes ready to attack – felt disconcerting and ominous in the context of what came before and after. The mannequin initially strewn in pieces across stage was discarded to the side then reassembled – the thinking behind this not entirely apparent. Nonetheless, classical imagery and poses adopted by the dancers as though assembled for worship encircling the mannequin now turned Greek-god-statue were beautiful in clarity. The statue swept across the stage with a diagonal of mythical characters to follow. In contrast a dancer slowly disintegrating, not dissimilar in movement to one of those wooden toys on a base with push button underneath, held together by strings, and the imminent collapse and subsequent re-collapse of each limb when the button is pressed. Page creates convincing tension between the idealised body and the diseased body using rich imagery.

Oppression encompasses vast issues to tackle and I commend Thomas Page for his ambitious approach and detailed imagery in parts of his choreography. There is gratifying dancing and thoughtful material throughout which has potential to be developed further into more nuanced narrative structures. I look forward to seeing how the collective develops future works. C-A-G-E-D is definitively a dystopian, bleak outlook on humanity’s experience of oppression and I would like to see next what happens when a glimmer of hope allows for breaking out of the C-A-G-E.

A. W.

13th July 2017