reviews


The Ballet des Porcelaines, or The Teapot Prince, was an eighteenth century ballet in the chinoiserie style, for which costumes, sets and choreography are lost; only the score, by Nicolas Racot de Grandval, and the libretto, by the Comte de Caylus, survive.  In 2021 Meredith Martin, Professor of Art History at New York University, and Phil Chan, choreographer and co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, collaborated on a re-imagining of this work, which is now touring European venues that included  Waddesdon Manor on 16 and 17 June.  The animation of porcelain was a popular eighteenth century motif, and the original ballet’s story, in which a Chinese sorcerer turned a prince into a teapot, epitomised the simultaneous ‘othering’ and plundering of Oriental culture by Europeans.  The project’s goal was to recreate the work remaining true to its original artistic intentions while revealing the narrative from a broader post-colonial perspective.

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Welcome to Jordan Lian, MPhil student at Oxford University, writing for Oxford Dance Writers for the first time. Jordan is studying the ballet history of the Slavonic region, and his current MPhil thesis is on Nijinska’s choreographic leadership of the Polish National Ballet 1937-1938. Here he reviews the recent triple bill by Rambert performed at Sadler’s Wells.

Friday’s Rambert performance started on a high note as Imre and Marne van Opstals’ Eye Candy, reflecting on the pains and pleasures of inhabiting the human body and originally premiered online in July 2021, generated an electric buzz. The piece opens with a dancer who drags out a mysterious package—a tranquil female body. Yet she comes alive as her peers onstage manipulate her joints and limbs to stretch, contort, and fold her corpus. In this sequence, the van Opstals challenge us to think of the degree of free will we possess in our own bodies; we watch as the puppet’s body is moulded by many hands until she moves autonomously. The choreography comprises mechanistic movements as the dancers jab, hammer, and drill gesturally, yet these high-frequency movements betray a lack of control despite the tension held in the dancers’ bodies. 

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Ballet Black’s confident and authoritative performance on Wednesday night brought the Oxford audience to its feet.  The programme of two new works, Say It Loud and Black Sun was original, thought-provoking, and beautifully danced.  Ballet Black’s twentieth anniversary tour is a celebration, and both dances, in their very different ways, were about identity and belonging.

Say It Loud, by Cassa Pancho, looks at the company’s history using seven dance ‘chapters’.  To set the scene, the seven dancers listen to a list of quotations from reviews and social media, responding physically to criticism and praise, before the series of vignettes explores the company’s place in both British society and the world of ballet itself.  Pancho is serious, but handles difficult political issues with a gentle touch and even humour: there is plenty to be angry about, but her dancers firmly assert their right just to dance, expressing their hope and love of classical ballet.

Black Sun, a co-commission with The Barbican, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma, dives deep into the origins of the earth to discover a shared sense of humanity.  It feels like the beginning of the world when a dancer, slender and ethereal, a mysterious bird-creature on pointe, weaves her way between beams of light, parting invisible curtains.  Maqoma has created a collective creation myth, drawing on the each dancer’s ancestral lineage.  He suggests universal themes, which the audience might see through the eyes of their own culture: for me, the fall from grace, the outcast, the chosen maiden and sibling rivalry were all there.  The dancers (José Alves, Isabela Coracy, Alexander Fadayiro, Sayaka Ichikawa, Mthuthuzeli November, Cira Robinson and Ebony Thomas), speak, sing and play drums, as well as dancing, in this totally absorbing and powerful work.  The audience loved it.

Maggie Watson

2nd June 2022

Yorke Dance Project’s Connecting to Cohan evening at The Mill Banbury fell into three parts: five solo dances drawn from Robert Cohan’s last work Afternoon Conversations with Dancers; an on-stage discussion between Richard Alston, Yolande Yorke-Edgell and Laurel Dalley Smith, and finally Lockdown Portraits, a film showing seven of the solos, filmed on locations chosen by Cohan.

Cohan’s last dances are intensely moving.  He consulted Alston about his recent work shortly before embarking on the project, and Alston responded that the group dances Cohan was creating were similar to his earlier works, but the solos were completely original and new.  Cohan went on to create Afternoon Conversations with Dancers, a collection of eight solos on which he worked collaboratively in dialogue with each dancer, exchanging ideas in words and movement, initially in the studio and then during lockdown over Zoom.

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‘Kaash’ means ‘if only’ in Hindi, and Kaash (Revival) begins ambiguously, blurring the boundary between performers and audience.  A dancer stands upstage right, broad shouldered and narrow waisted like an archaic statue, his back to the hubbub of the fully-lit auditorium as people settle into their seats.  His intense stillness, followed by a sudden blackout before a thunderous outburst of sound, light and movement is a magnificent piece of theatre, but Kaash (Revival), which forms part of the Southbank’s delayed celebration of Ravi Shankar’s 100th birthday, is far more than a dramatic entertainment.

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Richard Chappell’s work Infinite Ways Home opens with five dancers grouped upstage right in a partial darkness that is pieced by beams of light.  On a day when the news was filled with terrible accounts of the citizens of Mariupol sheltering in basements, this felt like a cave, in which people awaited salvation from the world above.

The creative team, led by choreographer Richard Chappell, have drawn on ideas of community and ritual, finding links between the Druids’ ancient connections with the natural landscape and the collective experience of rave culture.  The work follows the arc of a trip, as dancers and audience share an intense multi-sensory experience.  Towards the end, violinist Enyuan Khong comes on stage, raising the intensity of the sound to a level that feels almost unbearable.  At the after-show discussion, led by Miranda Laurence, Chappell described how he had worked remotely with composers Matthew Allmark and Kai Hellstrom (collectively known as Larch) during the first lockdown, as they developed the pulsating electronic score.  Remarkably, the superb lighting design by Joshua Harriette, which felt intrinsic to the production, was created afterwards.

Chappell’s collaborative process fully involves the dancers (he generously acknowledged previous dancers on the programme sheet) and he ran an exciting workshop the following day at the United Reformed Church Hall in Oxford for advanced and professional performers.  His choreography involves strong, supple and sensual movements with full use of the entire body to shift smoothly between upright positions and the floor with energy and dynamism.  Although he has to work with free-lance dancers, they all take company class together and their performance showed a powerful sense of shared purpose and commitment.  Looking around the auditorium, it was clear that Chappell’s work reaches audiences that might not ordinarily attend dance works, and at the end dancers Fay Stoeser, Iris Borras, Edd Arnold, Imogen Alvares, and Theo Arran received wild and enthusiastic applause.

Like Chhaya Collective, which appeared at The Mill Arts Centre Banbury the previous week, Richard Chappell Dance is based in the West Country:  we owe a big ‘thank you’ to the Dancin’ Oxford Festival for helping to bring these companies to Oxfordshire.

Maggie Watson

20th March 2022

On Thursday evening, The Mill Arts Centre presented three dance works for the Dancin’ Oxford 2022 Festival.  First, local dance group The Remarkables raised the curtain with a work created during one of the Chhaya Collective’s ‘Wild Workshops for Women’.  Five mature dancers used rhythmic, grounded movement to tell stories that connected their day-to-day lives with their inner feelings and the joyful experience of discovering and releasing them.  There followed two works on related themes danced by the Chhaya Collective:  Hymnos, for two dancers, and Khaos for six dancers and three musicians.

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Alastair Macaulay delivered the first face-to-face DANSOX lecture of 2022 against a background of loss and tragedy.  The loss was the death of the critic Clement Crisp at the age of 95; the tragedy, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  Macaulay dedicated his lecture to the memory of the former, and  acknowledged his initial difficulty in speaking to a topic that might have seemed trivial against the background of the latter. 

He then delivered a talk that proved quite the opposite.  Taking inspiration from Arlene Croce’s assertion in 1973 that ‘Swan Lake is not a drama about birds – it’s a drama about freedom’, Macaulay cogently argued that it is a ballet about power and subjugation; bondage and liberation; trust and betrayal, which extends beyond the personal tragedies of Odette and Siegfried into the wider social and political domain.

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Wednesday 9th February saw the first Dance Scratch Night at the Old Fire Station since the start of the pandemic.   Three local makers, Pragna Das, Susie Crow and Helen Edwards shared new work with an audience, and invited feedback and suggestions during discussions moderated by Jenny Parrott on behalf of Oxford Dance Forum (ODF).  Although they work in different dance and movement genres, all three artists draw on a vast corpus of knowledge and understanding: for Pragna Das and Susie Crow, the heritage of Kathak and ballet; for Helen Edwards, Asian movement traditions including Butoh, and the ancient materiality of the natural world.

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This was a beautifully planned evening of song, readings and dance, culminating in a performance of Franz Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata. Presented by the Oxford Dante Society to mark the 700th anniversary of the death of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, it formed part of a season of Dante themed activities programmed and supported by TORCH, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, as part of their Humanities Cultural Programme.  There were some last minute changes: tenor Seb Hill had stepped in overnight learning three solos at short notice, and speaker Anthony Hunt was unable to attend; his essay was read by pianist Jonathan Katz, who devised the event and also acted as an informal master of ceremonies.

The programme included two original dances, created with the support of DANSOX, Dance Scholarship Oxford.  The first was ‘That even I’, a solo created with movement direction by Estela Merlos and danced by Thomasin Gülgeç to music by Joseph Kay made by sampling extracts of spoken word.  Merlos, Gülgeç and Kay have worked together before, notably at the DANSOX 2021 summer school, and this piece seemed a logical development of work they showed then, in respect of its intensity, the dancer’s close attentiveness to the score, and the sense that the work had grown as an organic whole.

The second dance, ‘In a dark wood’, a duo choreographed by Susie Crow to music by Jeremy Thurlow, conjured up Dante’s wanderings through the forest at the beginning of Canto 1 of the Inferno, initially alone and then under the tutelage of  Virgil.  Cameron Everitt, as Dante, seemed to move aside invisible curtains of foliage, weaving his way beneath branches until he encountered Virgil, a severe but charismatic figure danced by Nicholas Minns.  At the end, the two made a stately geometric progress, exchanging places in a square pattern, as if Virgil were formally opening the way for Dante to go through a door, and leading him further on. 

The tiny floor area in a fully lit hall with the audience looking down from above was a very exposed stage for all three dancers.  Gülgeç, Everitt and Minns were within touching distance of the spectators, but with their individual and distinctive dance styles, they succeeded in drawing us into their imaginary worlds.

The evening concluded with the Liszt sonata, played by Jonathan Katz, and preceded by Hunt’s introduction, which reminded us that Frederick Ashton used the music for his wartime ballet Dante Sonata; Dante’s poetry has long been an inspiration for dance, and this programme continued that tradition.

This event, and also the Oxford screening and discussion of choreographer Luc Petton’s ballet Ainsi la Nuit for human dancers, birds and animals, have been recorded and will become available on the TORCH YouTube channel.

Maggie Watson

28th November 2021

Find out more about and give your feedback on TORCH’s Dante 2021 Season here

Check out the Ashmolean exhibition Dante: the Invention of Celebrity here

Read Barbara Berrington’s account of a previous Dante programme Dante in the Chapel including choreography by Susie Crow here

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