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

Performing Epic or Telling Tales is a monograph companion to the edited volume Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century (OUP, 2018). The monograph offers authors Fiona Macintosh and Justine McConnell an opportunity to investigate and seek to account for the increased popularity of story-telling and narrative in live theatre since the turn of the twenty-first century. It is not a book about dance, but the earlier edited volume contained contributions by dance scholars, and this monograph includes a chapter on ‘Telling Tales with the Body’.

Macintosh and McConnell start from the premise that twentieth-century theatre saw an anti-narrative turn (seen, for example, in the work of Samuel Beckett), and they seek to chart and hypothesise reasons for the subsequent (re-)turn to narrative that they perceive in theatrical works, including dances, since the millennium. In their Preface, they propose that this twenty-first century ‘narrative’/storytelling (re-)turn is often a turn to Graeco-Roman epic. However, their definition of ‘epic’ in the context of performance extends beyond ancient Greece and Rome, embracing other cultures and story-telling traditions, and oral modes of creating, improvising and performing, as they reflect on the ways in which epic can cast an alternative gaze upon contemporary society.

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Vivian Durante Company’s homage to Isadora Duncan is a superbly staged production. As the audience assembles, waves of light wash across the stage like water on a beach, to the sound of the sea. The lights dim and our eyes are drawn to the bowl, upstage left, that crackles and sparks, becoming a crucible of flames. Dancers emerge from the darkness; horrible crawling creatures that explode into dance with demonic passion in Isadora Duncan’s Dance of the Furies to music by Gluck, restaged by Barbara Kane and Viviana Durante. The intense energy condensed into violent movement and gesture conveys the dramatic force of Duncan’s work, but the repetitive patterns and limited movement vocabulary suggest that her choreography relied on shock quality as well as artistry for impact. At the end, the dancers slowly process past the glowing bowl, each sprinkling an offering into it as she passes. (more…)

DANSOX lectures are wonderful occasions. On Wednesday, the critic Alastair Macaulay shared memories, commentary and new insights with an audience of local residents, members of the University and distinguished visitors from the dance world. He began by setting his subject within its historical and cultural context, before launching into a wide ranging discussion of ballets ranging from the classical abstraction of Symphonic Variations to the humour, romance and narrative of La Fille Mal Gardée. (more…)

DANSOX begins its programme for 2016 with a Distinguished Guest Lecture from Alastair Macaulay, Chief Dance Critic of the New York Times, about the great British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton:

‘Frederick Ashton: Steps, Stories, Style’

Date:  Wednesday 2nd March 2016, 5.30pm, followed by drinks reception

Venue:  Jacqueline du Pré Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford

Free and open to all but booking essential. Book via https://dansox-alastair-macaulay.eventbrite.co.uk

Any queries or for further information please contact susan.jones@ell.ox.ac.uk
And for more information about forthcoming DANSOX events  www.torch.ox.ac.uk/dansox

It was a great treat to see four Frederick Ashton ballets (Scènes de ballet / Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan / Symphonic Variations / A Month in the Country) in one programme earlier this week at Covent Garden, and despite some imperfections of performance the sheer quality of choreography carried the evening.

The opening piece, Scènes de ballet, was a disappointment not so much because there were mistakes and some of the cast were clearly not on form, but because evidence of the company’s understanding of Ashton’s style appeared only intermittently. The choreography of this ballet is so subtle, so original and so exquisitely balanced that it cannot fail to delight, but it should have been better danced. (more…)

First staged in St Petersburg in 1890, The Sleeping Beauty is regarded as the pinnacle of classical ballet: a perfect marriage of Petipa’s choreography and Tchaikovsky’s music, and a glorious challenge for every dancer on stage. It is also the Royal Ballet’s signature work.  To mark the company’s 75th birthday in 2006, Monica Mason and Christopher Newton revitalised its landmark 1946 production, which re-established Petipa’s choreography as recorded by Imperial Ballet régisseur Nicholas Sergeyev, to a scenario and staging developed by Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet.  With Oliver Messel’s gorgeous original designs wonderfully reimagined by Peter Farmer, and additional choreography by Anthony Dowell, Christopher Wheeldon and Frederick Ashton, today’s The Sleeping Beauty not only captures the mood of the original but shows that this is very much a living work for the Royal Ballet, growing and changing with the company while celebrating its past. (more…)

When Kevin O’Hare stepped in front of the curtain, I expected bad news, and it was:  Natalia Osipova had mild concussion following “a collision of heads” during the afternoon performance;  Thiago Soares was off too, and  so was Tetractys – the art of fugue.  Cue for groans from the audience, followed by a round of applause from some of the more expensive seats when we were promised a refund of a third of the ticket price, and told that the bars would stay open for longer than usual.  And so the triple bill became a double bill, of Rhapsody and Gloria.  Nevertheless, this was an opportunity for the Royal Ballet to showcase the work of two of the company’s most important directors and to demonstrate an understanding of two very different, yet very English, choreographic styles. (more…)

Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse is offering some holiday dance viewing in a recorded transmission from the Royal Opera House.  “Fille is a treasure,” says Monica Mason, former Director of the Royal Ballet, and anyone who has seen this sunniest of ballets will certainly agree. With its origins in a work first seen in 1789, La Fille mal gardée was staged by several choreographers in the 19th century before Frederick Ashton brought it into the 20th century and created an instant classic which has never left the Royal Ballet’s repertory. (more…)

The Royal Ballet’s summer season has drawn to a close, but on Monday we had the chance to see the company’s Frederick Ashton programme, recorded on the night of Tamara Rojo’s farewell performance in February.

The programme opened with La Valse, to music described by its composer Ravel as “a kind of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz”.  Originally choreographed by Ashton’s mentor Bronislava Nijinska, to a score that Diaghilev believed inimical to ballet, the sombre, slightly menacing, lighting obscured the dance too much and this did not work well in a cinema. (more…)