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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balletLORENT’s Rumpelstiltskin, is an engrossing story of love, parental betrayal and redemption. Rumpelstiltskin, a little boy rejected by his father the King following the death of the child’s mother, is cast out to live in the woods and hedgerows. Only the Shepherd’s Daughter is kind to him. They grow up, and when the Shepherd foolishly boasts that his daughter (Natalie Trewinnard) can spin straw into gold, the miserly King sets her to work, threatening to slaughter their sheep if she fails. (This is particularly poignant as the sheep are played by small children on all fours with sheepskins on their backs). Rumpelstiltskin (Gavin Coward) appears and for three long nights spins the straw into gold, in exchange for a ring, a kiss, and finally her first born child when she marries his father. When Rumpelstiltskin comes to claim the baby (there is an implication that the child is his), she breaks the contract by guessing his name. The outcast prince is re-united with his father, who conveniently dies, enabling the couple to marry. (more…)

Alastair Macaulay’s lecture on George Balanchine developed ideas about the role of women in Balanchine’s work, which were raised last year at the 2019 DANSOX Summer School at St Hilda’s.  Macaulay provocatively proposed that ballet is unlike the other arts in that it is by its very nature sexist, being predicated on the bodies of men and women.  He further suggested, that sexism and the idealisation of women are intrinsic to Balanchine’s supported adagios, in which women, supported by men, become works of perfect geometry.  In short, Balanchine recognised and exploited the allegorical qualities that Western society has imposed upon the female body for centuries, and elevated women through objectification.

Trained in St Petersburg, Balanchine’s work both embodied and extended the Russian danse d’école of the early twentieth century.  Drawing on musical scores intended for the concert hall as well as those composed for ballet, he pushed ballet technique to new levels, embracing speed, extreme extensions, and daring off-centre balances.  He created a dance style perceived as typically American, yet he retained the chivalry, hierarchy, ceremony, symmetry and harmony derived from his St Petersburg schooling. (more…)

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…)

The Royal Academy of Dance centenary book is beautifully presented; complete with a red satin page marker, burgundy end-papers, a centenary seal embossed in gold on the front cover, and the Academy’s Royal crest on the back.  Generously illustrated throughout, the photographs run through the text like a thread of gold.  There are wonderful images such as Adeline Genée in Robert Le Diable at the Empire Theatre in 1908; Phyllis Bedells teaching in the 1950s; Michael Somes jumping higher than the international high jumper Dorothy Tyler beside him, and Stanislas Idzikowski demonstrating an arabesque in class, wearing a three-piece suit and street shoes.

All pictures are carefully credited wherever possible, but curiously, the main body of the text is unattributed. Apart from Forewords by Darcey Bussell and Li Cunxin, the Introduction by Gerald Dowler, and a short article by Jane Pritchard on the RAD collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum, there are no named authors; only an editor, Johanna Stephenson. (more…)

Backstage at the Ballet, an exhibition of photographs by Colin Jones, opened yesterday 11th February with a well-researched and entertaining presentation by Jane Pritchard, Curator of Dance at the Victoria &  Albert Museum, on Photographing Dance and Dancers.  Pritchard spoke interestingly and informatively about dancer-turned-photographer Colin Jones, the history of dance photography, and Jones’ photo-journalism, focusing on his work with dancers.  She drew attention to the wealth of social and historical information in his images, from evidence of the terrible quality of studio floors in the 1960s, to the way in which dancers used to spend their ‘down time’ knitting before there were mobile phones. (more…)

The DANSOX event Making “The Cellist” was an exciting opportunity to watch choreographer Cathy Marston’s creative process as she rehearsed her ballet based on the life of Jacqueline du Pré.  Du Pré, who died of multiple sclerosis (MS) at the age of forty-two in 1987, was an Honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s, and the evening began, fittingly, with a performance of Fauré’s Elegy in C Minor by St Hilda’s musicians Holly Jackson and David Palmer.  An open rehearsal, with Royal Ballet dancers Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Calvin Richardson, and discussion of Marston’s work followed.

Interviewed by her scenarist Edward Kemp, Marston eloquently described how her sister, a drama teacher, had used an old cello to stimulate improvisation, and realised that the idea held great potential for a ballet.  Marston is acutely aware of the sensitivity of her subject matter (her mother has MS), and rather than trying to reproduce the symptoms, she seeks to express what it feels like to have the disease.  She approached du Pré’s widower Daniel Barenboim at an early stage to gain his blessing, but the ballet is not an exploration of family relationships; it is about the gift and burden of talent. (more…)

In November 2019 Oxford Dance Writers (ODW) celebrated its 10th anniversary with a reception at the North Wall Arts Centre to mark the occasion. The evening provided a joyful opportunity for members of the wider Oxford dance and performing arts community to come together and catch up.  A panel of guest speakers discussed dance writing each from their own specific perspective.  Dance critic and historian Nadine Meisner entertained us with stories of the dance reviewer’s rackety life, but also described her experiences drawing together her authoritative biography of Marius Petipa published in the summer.  Dance artist Nicholas Minns, reflected thoughtfully on his emergence as a dance blogger and online critic covering a wide spectrum of dance performance, and the writers influencing him in developing a distinctive voice and perspective.  Professor Susan Jones, the driving force behind Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) which has scheduled so many fascinating events (talks, seminars, lecture demonstrations, residencies) in recent years, gave insight into the place and potential of dance within Oxford University, and its enriching contribution to innovative interdisciplinary research projects and outreach. Oxford University Press mounted an impressive display of its varied publications on dance for those attending to browse and purchase.

ODW emerged from Ballet in Small Spaces’ The Solos Project in 2009 as an initiative to encourage critical writing and online discussion of dance, and generate informed reviews of the work of local dance artists.  Since then it has become a valuable record of dance performance activity in and around Oxford, listing forthcoming events as well as reviewing, bearing witness to dance in Oxford; generating an archive of the diverse and idiosyncratic dance history of a particular place.  Aiming to be a space for informed debate it has played a significant part in raising the profile of dance in Oxford, and developing its audience.  ODW has run three Dance Writers of the Future competitions to encourage younger writers.  It tracks and reports on academic dance initiatives such as Dance Scholarship Oxford and Dance and Academia events, and regularly reviews dance publications both academic and popular.  It has had the support of Oxfordshire venues who provide press tickets for ODW reviewers, and of publishers who have provided review copies of dance books.

Over the last ten years 40 writers have been featured, with substantial contributions from Susie Crow and Maggie Watson.  As well as academics (such as Miranda Laurence, Dana Mills) contributors have included local dance artists (including Ana Barbour, Jane Connelly, Rachel Gildea, Lisia Newmark); occasional guest writers (Nicholas Minns of writingaboutdance.com, Rebecca Nice, Emily May, art historian Barbara Berrington, former Oxford Times dance critic David Bellan); local dance lovers (such as Jess Ryan-Phillips, Susannah Harris-Wilson, Susanna Reece); and young writers who have entered our competitions.   ODW reaches a significant number of dance professionals and enthusiasts in the Oxfordshire area, and despite its mainly local focus the site also has an international following.

ODW now extends its grateful thanks to all who have contributed writing and who have supported the site in other ways over the years.  A special thanks to Maggie Watson who has recently completed with distinction an MA in Ballet Studies at the University of Roehampton, for so regularly contributing thoughtful, perceptive and empathetic reviews of a wide range of performances and publications.  With particular reference to our anniversary celebration, special mention must go to our wise and encouraging speakers, to Oxford Dance Forum for its generous support, to The North Wall for hosting us in such welcoming fashion, and to Oxford University Press for its enticing display of dance publications which prompted much pre Christmas buying.  And a final shout out for local dance and visual artist Naomi Morris for her beautiful images for ODW publicity materials.

We look forward to continuing… watch this space!  Your interest and comments will be greatly valued.

Wishing you all the best for 2020 and the coming decade,

Susie Crow

 

You can find information about Nadine Meisner’s biography Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master here or why not drop into the OUP Bookshop at 116-117, High St, Oxford OX1 4BZ.

Read Nicholas Minns’ latest reviews on his blog writingaboutdance.com here

Find out about Dance Scholarship Oxford, DANSOX, here

and about Dance and Academia here

Information about Oxford Dance Forum and its activities can be found here

Vienna Festival Ballet’s production Snow White is lively, entertaining and fun. Presented in the manner of a traditional nineteenth century ballet, albeit on a small scale, the work features a ballroom scene (with show-piece tarantella), a nod towards a vision scene with a corps de ballet of nymphs and birds, and a grand pas de deux in the second act. The musical score, arranged by Alan Lisk from works by Samuel Alexander Faris and Charles-François Gounod abounds in danceable tunes, and the costumes were delightfully colourful. (more…)

Still wondering what Christmas present to get for the dance lovers or converts in your life?  Here is a reminder of some great publications that ODW has recently reviewed, including fascinating historic biographies and stunning photography, plus an extremely tempting DVD… click on the links provided for reviews and details of where to purchase.  Particular thanks to Maggie Watson for the informative and perceptive reviews she has contributed.

Nadine Meisner 2019  Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master

A major and groundbreaking volume, nominated for the Outstanding Creative Contribution in this year’s National Dance Awards (to be announced 19th February 2020). This is the first English language biography of the great ballet master behind such iconic works as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, massively influential in ballet’s development.  Full of historic detail it paints a fascinating picture of an intriguing character and the colourful world of 19th century ballet, giving tantalising glimpses of other forgotten works.  Essential reading; for further information read Maggie Watson’s review here  As an alternative to buying online, why not check it out alongside other fascinating dance publications by Oxford University Press at the OUP Bookshop, 116-117 High St, Oxford OX1 4BZ.

Michael Meylac 2018  Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: stories from a silver age

For reviewer Maggie Watson “There is never a dull moment in this collection of interviews with dancers associated in one way or another with the various companies collectively described as the ‘Ballets Russes’.” Professor Michael Meylac has tracked the historic diaspora of dancers from the Ballets Russes companies across the world, and the lively reminiscences he has elicited from a wide range of artists paint a vivid picture of often racketty professional existence, including memories of some of the great teachers bringing Russian ballet schooling to the West.  A hugely entertaining read, check out Maggie’s review here

Darcey Bussell 2018  Darcey Bussell: Evolved

An autobiography partly narrated through the lens of the professional camera; a chatty album whose portrait “snaps” of its likable protagonist happen to be by photographic luminaries including Annie Leibovitz, Arthur Elgort, John Swannell, Lord Snowdon and Richard Avedon, as well as distinguished dance photographers such as Bill Cooper, Anthony Crickmay and Chris Nash. It tracks the intriguing development of a career beyond the Royal Ballet for this beautiful ballerina as model and media personality.  Read Susie Crow’s review of this luxurious coffee table book here and read Maggie Watson’s report of Darcey Bussell interviewed by Nick Higham at the Oxford Literary Festival here

Rick Guest 2019  Edward Watson: Portrait of a Dancer

You would need a substantial Christmas shopping budget to be able to afford this portfolio of Rick Guest’s stunning large format photographs of a particular muse, the remarkable and individual Royal Ballet star Edward Watson.  Maggie and Susie went to hear Guest and Watson in entertaining and thought-provoking conversation about their work together earlier this year at the National Portrait Gallery; read Maggie’s account here.  There are other volumes of Guest’s extraordinary portraits of dancers available at more affordable prices; read Maggie’s account here of his exhibition What Lies Beneath which is now available as a book.  Check this out along with examples of the Watson portraits here

Richard Allen Cave & Anna Meadmore eds. 2018  Robert Helpmann: the many faces of a theatrical dynamo

This collection of articles by dance academics and practitioners on the charismatic and multifaceted dancer and actor Robert Helpmann is a timely and valuable addition: as Maggie says, “enlightening, entertaining and scholarly”.  Emerging from the research leading to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2014 restaging of Helpmann’s powerful ballet Miracle in the Gorbals, it brings this major figure back into the limelight; including some of his own writings and a DVD with fascinating interviews and documentary footage.  Essential reading for those interested in the development of British Ballet during and after WW2.  Read Maggie’s review here

And finally…

Queen + Béjart: Ballet for Life

Available on DVD or Blu-ray this double bill includes not only historic live action capture of Queen and the Béjart Ballet in Ballet for Life, but also the fascinating recent documentary about the work by director Lynne Wake and producer Simon Lupton.  Edited by Emmy Award winner Christopher Bird, it tells the story of Ballet for Life and its success, featuring the great and the good of both rock and dance, including: Brian May, Roger Taylor, Gil Roman, Wayne Sleep and Arlene Phillips. The full performance at Théâtre Métropole, Lausanne in June 1997 was captured and directed by David Mallet, known specifically for directing live performance concerts of such megastars as Tina Turner, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and numerous Queen videos including Bicycle Race, Radio Ga Ga, I Want to Break Free and Freddie’s classic The Great Pretender video.  It includes incredible archive footage of Freddie Mercury, Maurice Béjart, and Queen, as well as Gianni Versace and his stunning costume designs. This release also includes a substantial segment of John Deacon’s final performance with Queen, taken from Ballet for Life international premiere with Elton John in Paris.

Ballet for Life was a unique collaboration between three cultural brands: Queen, Versace and the late visionary choreographer Maurice Béjart, celebrating the life and talents of legendary performers, Freddie Mercury and Béjart Ballet Lausanne’s former principal dancer, Jorge Donn, both of whom died of AIDS in the nineties. For Maurice Béjart, choreography was about the cycle of life, youth and hope, as well as life triumphing over death.  Already presented over 350 times around the world, this ballet continues to tour widely.  Those of us attending the DANSOX summer school in July were lucky enough to see a showing of Lynne Wake’s excellent documentary, which incorporates live footage of a new generation of stunning dancers rehearsing this powerful work.  A real Christmas treat; you can buy the double bill online here

Happy Christmas!