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

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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Another fascinating online dance event coming up from DANSOX: International choreographer, Kim Brandstrup, currently one of two Director’s Fellows at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts (CBA) for 2019/20, will give the lecture, Hearing Footsteps – the ear and the audible in dance and choreographic practice, with practical demonstration from dancers, Estela Merlos and Thomasin Gulgec.

This event will be added to the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building’s YouTube channel from Wednesday 9th December. Watch this and more on the DANSOX playlist.

Miranda Laurence is a dramaturg, working mostly with dance makers. In this role she accompanies a director or choreographer during the process of creating a new work, attending to the rhythm of all elements in the piece, and actively noticing responses from the viewer’s perspective.  Miranda is currently undertaking a self-led professional development project in dance dramaturgy funded by Arts Council England.

Here for Oxford Dance Writers Miranda gives a revealing insight into her role in assisting the development of new work within the privacy of the dance studio.

I’m sitting in the faded splendour of Swindon Dance’s main studio, which is adorned with huge vintage mirrors, curlicued window frames and chunky old-fashioned radiators. As usual, I’m tucked away in a corner, sitting on the floor, taking in the size, shape, feel and details of the space around. Out on the floor, two dancers (Thomasin Gülgeç and Estela Merlos) undergo their warm-up, twisting and weaving fluidly through the space, mirroring each other or going off on tangents. I think: “am I earning my money as a dramaturg by watching these dancers warm up? How should I warm myself up?” (more…)