Nocturne, an original programme of French piano music, dance and song, was a completely absorbing aesthetic experience. We sat on chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the performance area, the grand piano to the left, the dance space alongside it, illuminated by small portable footlights. In the far corner was a Christmas tree, lit with plain white lights; overhead there were angels carved on the wooden ceiling, and behind us, Jacob Epstein’s statue of Lazarus.

Musically, the programme fell into two halves: the first half, which included the dance, being Gabriel Fauré’s 1er Nocturne in E flat minor and Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II; the second a performance of French poems in settings by Fauré, Claude Debussy, Henri Duparc and Reynaldo Hahn, elegantly sung by Rory Carver.

Joëlle Pappas is steeped in nineteenth century French poetry and art. Her choreography drew on the life of the sculptor Camille Claudel, who, after the end of a passionate affair with Auguste Rodin, was confined to an asylum by her family. Pappas’ work with patients at the Warneford Hospital, Oxford, was integral to her creative process, and the dance presented not so much an historical character as a timeless psychological predicament. The dance embodied isolation, resistance and suffering: long continuous phrases of movement suddenly ruptured as Pappas whirled and spun almost off-balance; sometimes she tugged at each finger, evoking both Claudel’s mental anguish and her skill in sculpting hands and feet. At other times she danced holding her hands clasped together, or turned them over and over each other as if trying to wash them clean, before she dragged a red silk sash from her dress, like a wound bleeding from her side. Finally, she moved out of sight into the depths of the chapel, while the music played on.

Experiencing the juxtaposition of dance, piano, song and poetry in such an intimate space is almost a form of synaesthesia. The colours were gorgeous: Diana Hinds, the pianist, wore crushed red velvet, and Pappas’ costume, by Emma Lyth, was made of drifting layers in pinks, russet and grey that moved with her, becoming part of the dance. I watched Hinds’ hands reflected in the shining surface of the piano as left crossed over right, her fingers rippling like water, a physical manifestation of the music even before Pappas began to dance. The discipline of the concert format might have made the evening disjointed, but the lyrical music and dance, visual imagery and poetry ran through the programme in a thread of ideas about human experience, unifying it into a coherent whole. Nocturne is an exciting experimental artistic collaboration, which will tour to other venues in 2020. I hope to see it again.

Maggie Watson

13th December 2019