“Spring is coming…” I wrote in posting an advance round-up of performance and other events for this year’s edition of Dancin’ Oxford Festival 1st – 11th March 2018. It would perhaps have been more appropriate to post “Winter is coming…” as the arrival of the “Beast from the East” took some casualties in the first weekend of programming. Heavy snowfall and consequent travel disruption led to the postponement to a later date (to be announced) of the one day Dance and Academia conference, with several guest speakers unable to get there. That same day (Saturday 3rd March) Company Chameleon’s performance at Pegasus Theatre was also cancelled.

Other companies who had arrived in Oxford a day or two earlier before the snow were able to continue with scheduled performances in true “the show must go on” style, and with encouragingly healthy audiences. At the end of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Friday evening performance of Odyssey at The North Wall, performer George Mann gave a heartfelt thanks to those that had made it. I found this lively retelling of Homer’s great story of journey and homecoming well worth crunching through silent snowy streets for. An approach based in Lecoq trained mime enabled the choreographed build-up of a recognizable movement language of character signatures and suggestions of place and action, creating a colourful world of believably imperfect humans and capricious deities out of minimal resources. Mann’s exhilaratingly paced combination of speech, onomatopoeic sounds and powerfully economic gesture, simply presented and subtly lit, made the tale exciting, funny and poignant.

Was it dance though? This was just one of several shows viewable during the Festival which raised the question of where the borderline sits between dance and physical theatre, and to what extent Dancin’ Oxford might actually be living up to its name. Increasingly it seems that shows programmed as dance require their performers to speak, sing, manipulate puppets or props and incorporate mime, circus or acrobatic skills, in addition to dancing. In The Wedding acclaimed physical theatre company Gecko at the Playhouse used the rituals of marriage to stand as a metaphor for the individual entering into a contract with modern urban society, and drew on every means to depict this. Despite huge embodied energy dance content here seemed limited to generic physicality or “universal folk dancing”.

An emphatically political message about belonging and not belonging, the pressure to join the rat race of capitalist culture in a frenetic depiction of office life, the heart-breaking desperation of refugee existence, and the growing of revolutionary resistance despite a series of faltering setbacks, emerged via a succession of surreal vignettes. The show opened with eager applicants in their underwear emerging from a chute into a grimy antechamber where they are welcomed with false bonhomie, bustled into a wedding dress and made to sign forms in an increasingly cursory ceremony of acceptance into a dark world of frantic briefcase carrying individuals. A later telling episode with dreamily floating symbols of office life – a tie, a telephone, a briefcase, wafting out of reach – suggested a man lost in the repetitive purposelessness of corporate existence, before being hounded by aggressive superiors in a ludicrous but oppressive meeting in a box. At intervals high above the stage faceless fat cats (one with a familiar blond mullet) were revealed gorging at a table as others tried to scramble up. A random group of individuals emerged from a suitcase, a veneer of comically ingratiating charm slipping to reveal anxiety, bewilderment, then terror, one eventually succeeding in joining the crowd; touching performances here finely conjuring believable idiosyncrasy. Finally throwing off their uniform the cast come together in a vision of a more utopian future, lined up in front of the audience stamping and singing a rousing battle hymn of solidarity. An international cast of committed and talented performers threw themselves (often literally) into this picture of our dystopian world. My companions and I left the theatre impressed by telling imagery but feeling slightly beaten over the head with righteous indignation.

The previous week had also seen a dance theatre piece with a clear political message as a preview to the Festival. At the Old Fire Station Euton Daley’s Unlock the Chains Collective presented a full evening show #Ending the Silence, exploring the Black Diaspora and its struggles over the past 70 years for justice, equality and human rights. This represented the further development of work begun as a shorter piece #Black Lives Matter shown at last year’s festival as part of the annual Moving With The Times platform showcasing work by Oxford based dance artists; suggesting the potential this might have as a useful pathway of progression for locally generated work. Now expanded into three parts and involving a company of ten performers, the performance included actors, singers, dancers and drummers, and satisfyingly integrated song, speech, poetry and movement with the manipulation of schematic scenic elements to suggest different episodes and settings, releasing evocative groupings and memorable chants. From outbursts of heartfelt anger and sadness the mood developed towards an infectiously upbeat ending, and the more intimate setting, audience focused delivery, and framing of the performance by drumming in the theatre bar beforehand and a disco set after, allowed for a warm welcoming of audience involvement. This more inclusive format seems appropriate for an essentially political event. But here again perhaps the least successful element were the short passages of more formalised contemporary dance by two skilled dancers, which seemed to be operating in a different dimension. Can such dancing successfully convey political messages?

Despite these two substantial shows one political message that seemed sadly absent in the year of the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote was the empowerment of female artists, so much in discussion in the wider dance and arts world. Most of the works presented in this year’s festival were choreographed or directed by men with women in either subsidiary or at best collaborative roles. A greater presence of female creative perspectives would have brought freshness and a sense of the art form’s diversity and range. A shout out then to the wonderful Lindsay Butcher of Gravity and Levity providing aerial dance spectacle on the façade of the new Westgate Centre, and also to Oxford based dance artists Joelle Pappas and Ellie Aldegheri both presenting their work at this year’s Moving With The Times at Pegasus Theatre.

Dancin’ Oxford bravely continues waving a flag for dance as Cinderella art form in a city where literature and music command far greater resources and profile. With minimal funding, the Festival draws together shows that Oxford venues have independently decided to offer in a marketing campaign, surrounding these with practical workshops that aim to draw in a wider public, in a now predictable format that needs meaningful support to enable it to refresh itself. Venues more used to programming drama seem to be more comfortable with the literal messages of physical theatre work than with the abstracted and sometimes oblique ways of expressing and reflecting life that dance has; and this year it felt that dance enthusiasts, of whom Oxford has surprisingly many, had frustratingly few opportunities to engage with the richness of dancing on its own terms. On Thursday 1st March a large number made it through the snow for Alastair Macaulay’s guest lecture for Dance Scholarship Oxford on the legendary Fred Astaire, arguably the greatest dancer of the 20th century, savouring a series of choice film clips. Not part of Dancin’ Oxford’s programme; but a timely reminder of the miraculous expressive properties and joyful creative bounty that can be afforded through a concentration on dancing itself.

Susie Crow

11th March 2018

Here is a list of links to Oxford Dance Writers’ reviews of this year’s Dancin’ Oxford Festival:

Read Ségolène Tarte’s review of bgroup’s Point of Echoes at The North Wall here

Read Joel Stanley’s review of Unlock the Chains Collective’s #Ending the Silence at the Old Fire Station here

Read Jess Ryan-Phillips’ review of Richard Chappell Dance’s At The End We Begin at the Old Fire Station here

Read Lisia Newmark’s review of Tidy Up by Peut-Etre Theatre at The North Wall here

Read Nicholas Minns’ review of Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Translunar Paradise at The North Wall here

Read Maggie Watson’s review of Unlock the Chains Collective’s #Ending the Silence at the Old Fire Station here