The play opens with a projected image of Ida Rubinstein’s grave, which morphs into mysterious and exotic visions of Naomi Sorkin, who slowly unwinds and removes one veil after another.  She is at once Cléopâtre, Salomé and Rubinstein, gradually revealing her body, as she prepares to disclose layer upon layer of her past.  Sorkin’s compelling performance exudes magnetic power, as she plays an ageing femme fatale telling her life story to journalist Edward Clement (played by Max Wilson). 

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The third annual DANSOX summer school was a scholarly investigation into the relationship between dance and inscription.  It treated both concepts in the broadest sense: ‘dance’ encompassed Western movement styles ranging from the Baroque to the contemporary; ‘inscription’ embraced not only the written word and notation, but also the traces preserved in art, photography, film and the dancing body itself.  The format was hybrid, with a small socially distanced audience present in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, and a recorded live stream for external participants.

Alastair Macaulay’s opening lecture looked at literary sources of inspiration for dance and the role of notation in protecting, preserving, and challenging our perceptions of works.  Macaulay’s wide ranging discussion, liberally illustrated with film clips and photographs, raised themes developed in the subsequent lectures and dance workshops.  He noted the subtle ways in which choreographers such as Merce Cunningham have drawn on a literary sources, and cited Pam Tanowitz’ interweaving of dance, music and poetry in her Four Quartets.  Macaulay also discussed the ways in which dances change over time; the problems and inadequacies of recordings; the significance of context, and the readability or otherwise of notation, whether that of Vladimir Stepanov or Vaslav Nijinsky.

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The Grace Project is an interdisciplinary investigation into the concept of ‘grace’ in all its forms, which evolved from the research of Professor Sue Jones on literature and dance.  Grace has been central to the development of dance aesthetics, but it has also been challenged by practitioners of modern and contemporary dance.  These two seminars, which were attended by socially-distanced groups of academics, practitioners and interested local people, interrogated the question of what constitutes grace by examining five contrasting dances performed by, and discussed with, members of the Yorke Dance Project led by Yolande Yorke-Edgell.

The dancers presented works by Robert Cohan, Kenneth MacMillan and Yorke-Edgell, the latter consciously channelling the influences of Richard Alston and Bella Lewitzky (who was herself influenced by the choreographer Lester Horton).

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If I had to recommend just one book to a vocational dance student, it would be Ballet: The Essential Guide to Technique and Creative Practice.  In ten chapters, each written by an expert, the book covers the full range of material of which anyone embarking on a career in ballet needs understanding and awareness. 

The structure takes the reader logically from Ginny Brown’s and Anna Meadmore’s opening chapters on  ballet’s founding principles, cultural history and heritage, though the practical aspects of learning to dance, self-care, creativity and musicality, and on to guidance on the professional conduct, conventions and essential activities that all help bring a performance from the studio to the stage.

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It was great delight to attend the Royal Ballet School’s recreation of Ninette de Valois’ experimental study The Arts of the Theatre (1925) to the music of Ravel’s La Valse.  It was the culmination of a project resulting from archivist Anna Meadmore’s exciting discovery of Ursula Moreton’s choreographic notations in the School’s collections.

The evening fell into four parts:  an illustrated talk by Meadmore, followed by an initial performance of the work by five dancers from the Upper School.  Then, after a brief pause, Meadmore interviewed each of the young dancers, sensitively eliciting their individual responses to the work, and taking questions from the online audience.  Finally the dancers danced again, giving us all a second chance to watch a work that had not been performed since 1932.

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This moving tribute was the first in a series of events by Yorke Dance Project (YDP) dedicated to the memory of Sir Robert Cohan, and honoured his work on what would have been his 96th birthday. 

Yolande Yorke-Edgell (Artistic Director of YDP) described how after they met nine years ago, Cohan, who was already in his 80s, revived three works and created another four for the company.  Cohan continued to work with YDP until the end of his life, using Zoom to create during lockdown.  His last rehearsal was on 5 December 2020.

Filmmaker David McCormick shared a short film, narrated by Cohan, about the creation of the work Communion for YDP’s 20th Anniversary Season in 2019.  This is planned to be a chapter from a Film Book on Dance which will include Cohan talking about how to be a dancer and choreographer, alongside text, images and film.  Cohan’s work was instrumental to the development of contemporary dance practice in the United Kingdom, and he was not only a dancer and choreographer but also a gifted teacher and mentor.  He was fascinated by movement: if Communion is understood as an essay on dance through performance, McCormick’s film was a way of documenting Cohan’s wisdom, philosophy and beliefs.

Other contributions followed.  Lighting designer John B. Read, Roy M. Vestrich, and Yorke Dance Associate Director Stephen Pelton, spoke of how Cohan trusted his collaborators, and worked with the way that dancers moved, tuning into the vibrations that impel movement.  For Dane Hurst, whom those attending were privileged to see performing his solo from Communion in a separate short film by David Stewart, Cohan’s rehearsals were transformational experiences in which the ordinary became extraordinary, as he came to see the world with greater clarity.  Dancer Laurel Dalley Smith, who the following day gave an online master class on her solo from Communion, noted Cohan’s ability to find his dancers’ inner core.

The evening had moments of sadness, but it did not feel like an ending.  The Cohan Collective, an open residency programme for the creation of new choreography and music composition which aims to maintain the spirit of Cohan’s unique artistic legacy, will carry on, continuing to support dancers and choreographers on their journey to find themselves as creative artists, discovering the dance that lies within them.

Maggie Watson

9th April 2021

Find out more about the Cohan Collective here

Find out more about Yorke Dance Project here

Watch excerpts from Communion by Sir Robert Cohan, as well as works by other choreographers influenced by Martha Graham, in online streamed performance by the Martha Graham Company 30th April to 2nd May; further information and booking details here

Anne Searcy’s scholarly and highly readable book examines the impact of US – Soviet cultural exchanges during the Cold War through the lens of the Bolshoi Ballet’s 1959 and 1962 tours of the USA, and the tours by American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet of the Soviet Union in 1960 and 1962 respectively.  Searcy draws on an impressive array of Russian and English archival resources and contemporaneous reviews to reconstruct and understand the way in which these companies, their works, and their performances were received by audiences at the time.  She offers new material and a new view point focussed on the reception of the dance, rather than its presentation.

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Dance Fields is an important collection of papers, arising from a 2017 conference convened by the Centre for Dance Research (Coventry University), the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Dance  (De Montfort University) and the Centre for Dance Research (University of Roehampton).  The conference celebrated the coming of age of Dance Studies within the ‘academy’ and is evidence of the breadth, depth, and originality of research on dance in UK universities.  Stephanie Jordan’s Opening Panel Paper notes the vast range of dance scholarship, embracing areas as diverse as history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, dance science, and of course the dance itself; its choreography and practice.  This collection, through its scope and varied styles of presentation, with examples of interaction between ‘traditional’ and practitioner modes of scholarship, demonstrates the intellectual extent and value of Dance Studies as a discipline in its own right.

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The Bournemouth three year Residency of the Cohan Collective began in 2018 with a two-week Intensive, followed by a Development Week in 2019, and finally a three-week creative period in summer 2020.  In a normal year the final phase would have culminated in a live showing before a selected audience, but this year, because of the pandemic, the artists shared their work in a Zoom meeting.

We saw two works; one created for film and therefore complete, the other for the stage and so by force of circumstance not yet in its final form.  The sharing event was well planned, with opportunities for questions and discussion.  After an introduction by the  event moderator, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, Founder Director of the Cohan Collective alongside Sir Robert Cohan and composer pianist Eleanor Alberga, explained the purpose of the project: to enable artists to become their best creative selves through exploration and collaboration, with the support of mentors, and with the time and space to be both vulnerable and adventurous.  The moderator then posted the link to a film of the first work in the chat, so that we could all watch it simultaneously, before returning to the Zoom call for discussion.

We saw the first work, choreographer Edd Mitton’s The Quickening, without costumes, sets or lighting, filmed at the final point of preparation in the studio, before that vital shift when it should have transferred to the stage.  Three female dancers (Freya Jeffs, Sharia Johnson, and Abigail Attard Montalto), in black practice clothes, their heads initially swathed in white scarves that covered their faces, seemed to swim slowly in the air, drifting in space to Edmund Hunt’s composition for violin, double bass and piano.  The slow floating movements, to music that sounded like breaths of air punctuated by notes from a five-tone scale, evoked an atmosphere of the supernatural.  A man (Jordi Calpe Serrats) sits and seems to sense invisible presences, but not to see them.  He reaches out to hold them as they move around him marking the limits of his space as if they live within the four walls of his room.  He lies down, perhaps sleeping, and they carefully circle him anti-clockwise, extending their hands and hovering over him as if to draw him upwards with invisible threads.  They might be waking him, or they might be stealing his soul; they are like three witches, or spirits, or something that falls between reality and imagination.  They never quite touch him, until one clamps her outspread hand to his chest with the impact of an electric shock, and at last she dances with him.  In the end, they cradle him, and then let him slide to the ground and roll away, before each retreats to her own corner, leaving him downstage right, carefully moving his hand across the surface of the floor as if he can sense traces of ghostly footprints.

The second work, What Remains, by choreographer Dane Hurst and filmmaker Pierre Tappon to music by Ryan Latimer, made use of different locations and special effects, but the focus was nevertheless on the dance itself.  Romany Pajdak, dressed in white and looking utterly defenceless stands in a narrow alley way hemmed in by the high brick walls on either side.  We see clips of her running (towards someone, or away from them?) and Hurst, her partner, fades in and out of the picture as if he is walking in and out of her mind.  They dance a duet that contests the narrow space as if they are trapped in a dysfunctional relationship. Then Hurst dances a solo in the dark, filmed partially from above, before we see Pajdak again, in a derelict attic, where she discovers Hurst lying on the floor.  They circle each other warily, like cats, and when they dance together they are often not face-to-face, but one behind the other.  In the final scene, Pajdak, her back against a wall, tips and swings in two dimensions like a pendulum, until she subsides to the ground.

In the first Question and Answer session someone asked whether The Quickening was about Coronovirus.  Although neither work was specifically about the pandemic, both dances seemed influenced by related themes:  loneliness, isolation, vulnerability, and an ever-present invisible threat.  The absence of physical touch in parts of The Quickening and of eye contact in parts of What Remains echoed the lack of connection that so many people have recently suffered.

In discussion we heard about the ways in which the choreographers, composers, musicians, dancers, and their mentors, often working remotely from one another, had successfully addressed this year’s particular challenges.  Sir Robert Cohan spoke at the end, emphasising the difference between being an artist for oneself (which is easy) and being an artist for your community, creating work and experiences for an audience that they can understand:  the true artist finds new ways to see life and emotion, and our society needs artists, if we are to grow as human beings.  Through this residency, the Cohan Collective, together with partners  Yorke Dance Project, Pavilion Dance South West and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and other supporters, has provided the professional guidance that prepares composers, choreographers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers to fulfil this essential role: it is good news that this year’s Birmingham Residency, although, perforce, postponed, is scheduled for 2–14 August 2021.

Maggie Watson

18th October 2020

You can find out more about the Cohan Collective here

Sharon Skeel’s biography of Catherine Littlefield underlines the fragility and ephemeral nature of dance careers, schools and companies. During the course of her short life, Littlefield, building on work begun by her mother, became Philadelphia’s foremost ballerina, teacher and choreographer. She headed up her own ballet company, the Philadelphia Ballet, which toured widely in North America and even to Paris, Brussels and London, and her school provided several dancers for Balanchine’s inaugural class at School of American Ballet. Since she died aged 46 in 1951, her contribution to the development of ballet in the United States has largely faded from memory. (more…)