DANSOX conferences at St Hilda’s College, Oxford are now a regular landmark in the UK dance research year.  DANSOX works in association with TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) and constitutes Oxford’s interface between dance practice and dance research; a space to investigate the ways in which practice constitutes research and, conversely, where research becomes practice.  Although Oxford University has neither a dance department nor dance studio, DANSOX plays a vital role at a time when other UK institutions and centres of academic excellence in dance and their collections are under threat.

The DANSOX 2022 Day of Dance: Transnational Conversations symposium was a collaboration with TORCH Humanities and Cultural Programme and the Network Britain and the Soviet Union: Cultural Encounters; the day interrogated the ways in which dance communicates across borders, cultures and generations through written records, images, recordings and bodily memory.  Open to all, and attended by an array of distinguished scholars, writers, and practitioners from major dance institutions, the day included performances, workshops, lectures, and experimental applications of virtual reality (VR) to performance.

The day opened with Researching Choreographic Common Denominators, an experimental choreographic investigation in which contemporary dancers Liam Francis and his colleague Imogen Alvares shared their creative experiences, remembering, recreating, and finally creating a new dance.  In between each of the four iterations, they discussed their physical and thought processes as they experimented with movement, using a soundscape of rain, music, or silence.  The dancers seemed to play with the pulls of rhythm and space, making use of the unexpected slipperiness of the floor and exploring their muscle memory.  In dialogue with members of the audience, they spoke of seeking out new ways of moving through incremental shifts and uncomfortable choices, and the need to resist indulgence in order to find the more difficult dynamics and ‘edge’ that animate performance.

Jane Pritchard’s keynote lecture on Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923) addressed the ballet in the context of its reception in London in 1926 (the opening night was the day before that of Frederick Ashton’s first ballet A Tragedy of Fashion).  Pritchard demonstrated through a selection of remarkable images the extent of Nijinska’s engagement with Constructivism, and its influence on her work.  Nijinska’s interest in movement (over narrative) developed through her work with her brother Vaslav Nijinsky, and during a period of experimentation in Kyiv.  In Les Noces, Stravinsky’s music, although choral, does not tell a story; the words are chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, and the dance explains each scene choreographically.

Next on the programme was a workshop, led with clarity, insight, and energy by Deirdre Chapman, in which she taught seven dancers part of the Wedding Celebration in Les Noces.  Nearly 100 years on, Nijinska’s use of parallel positions and the repetition of simple steps to create powerful ensemble dances seems strikingly modern.  Chapman, who had learned the ballet in Christopher Newton’s restaging, taught quickly and effectively, with clear explanations as she conveyed the complex dance counts (2×6; 4×3; 6; 8; 8×3; and so on).  It was exciting to watch the dance take shape.

The following three lectures began with a stimulating ‘provocation’ by Marcus Bell on the wildness and mythical aspects of Rites of Spring, and the undoing of the colonial structure.  Meindert Peters then spoke on Kafka’s precise use of language and the way in which and Arthur Pita’s Metamorphosis (2011) addressed that language through dance, shedding new light on a work that many will have seen streamed during the pandemic.  The final lecture by Funmi Adewole on Modernity and the Germaine Acogny Technique was enthralling.  Adewole described the development of an entire movement in different art forms across three continents; the differences and tensions between ‘Pan-Africanism’ and ‘Negritude’, and the growth of national dance companies in Africa.  Contrasting industrial modernity with political modernity, Adewole showed how the dance system developed by Acogny transcends the post-colonial legacy and geographical and nationalist restrictions, by adopting a philosophical conception of dance that enables bodies to move in a particular way.

The hybrid session on Zoom, chaired by Professor Sue Jones alongside dance critic Judith Mackrell to launch Lynn Garafola’s book La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern, was literally a transnational conversation about dance.  Garafola delivered a delightful illustrated talk, in which she discussed Nijinska’s relationships with members of the Russian diaspora communities, including Feodor Chaliapin, and Nijinska’s analytical approach to music and space in dance.  Despite the protective carapace that she built around herself, Garafola argued that Nijinska was a subjective woman creating objective choreography.

The final event of the day was a panel presentation chaired by Professor Wes Williams, Director of Torch, in which choreographer Alexander Whitley and his team (digital artist Neil Coghlan, and dancers Sarah Saad and Hannah Joseph) discussed his work Future Rites, an immersive dance experience for virtual reality (VR).  During the afternoon, some of the audience had tried out Whitley’s prototype, which enables a participant and a dancer to share a dance experience, in this case, one inspired by The Rite of Spring.  The dancer wears a motion tracking suit and the participant wears a headset that enables them to experience a digital performance as if from within.  The participant has a degree of agency, for example to choose which way to look, and can even influence aspects of the environment, such as the wind in the trees and the outcome of the performance.  The dancer experiences a new kind of embodiment, unable to see what the participant ‘sees’, but able to interact with them in this intriguing extension using gaming technology.

Sue Jones made everyone most welcome at the conference reception and dinner.  Earlier, she had given a brief impassioned speech in support of dance scholarship, which only became established as an academic discipline in British universities in the late twentieth century, and is now at risk due to cuts at leading dance institutions, such as University of Roehampton.  This DANSOX day was an exceptional gathering of dance professionals, academics, and independent researchers, who eagerly seized the opportunity to exchange thoughts and new ideas.  It demonstrated the depth, breadth and originality of dance research, both as a discipline in its own right and for its direct relevance to, and connections with, the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.  Great thanks are due to TORCH, to St Hilda’s College, and above all to Jones herself, whose inspirational leadership of DANSOX is helping to keep dance scholarship theory and practice alive in the United Kingdom.

Maggie Watson

12th June 2022