Dancin' Oxford Festival 2007

A month of dance events at various venues.
Feb - March 2007

March 8, 2007
Made in Oxford - Pegasus Theatre and Oxford Dance Forum

Made in Oxford is a collection of four short pieces showcasing local Oxford talent. The first piece, in telling spaces; even the breath is set to rather haunting, minimalist music. Nine dancers seem to rally around each other, gathering around and scattering. This piece is enthralling to watch, and one senses it is deeply symbolic. However, the story itself is frustratingly elusive, perhaps a feature of the postmodern/contemporary style of dance employed. This piece was commissioned by choreographer Gill Clark, and is a feature of the programme for all three nights of the performance.

Flamenco – Siguirillas was in sharp contract to the first piece, featuring a live trio of musicians and a very solemn Amarita Vargas, dancing the Siguirillas. Intricate footwork and a tightly choreographed routine gave this piece a deeply traditional feel.

Reign - A high energy piece set to music by British trip-hop group UNKLE, the three dancers provided a contemporary display of movement and relationships. The dynamics between them was always changing, pushing and pulling. Their movements were clean and elegant, and gave the piece a real professionalism.

Weft – By far the most bizarre performance of the night, this piece featured seven dancers painted white and adorned with bits of black bin bags. Different images of water were projected throughout the performance, and musical accompaniment was provided by two musicians playing the koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) and what the programme refers to as ‘memory loops’. It was a very slow piece that seemed to be mimicking the movement of water, flowing and gyrating. One dancer draped entirely in bin bags stood frozen for the entire piece, though he punctuated the music with two long wails.

The latter three pieces will be replaced with other performances by local dancers and choreographers at the next two shows. Overall, it is a visually interesting and unusual experience, particularly for someone like me with little experience of contemporary dance, but it may not suit all tastes.

March 5, 2007
Dancing Chronicles: Impact, Tac-au-Tac Dance Theatre
Saturday 3rd March 2007
I learnt a little about creative choreography from Joelle Pappas, Tac-au-Tac dance theatre’s director at an introductory Dancin’ Oxford workshop last week and was looking forward to seeing her dance groups in action. Tac-au-tac is a fencing term for an equally matched sequence of parry and riposte, which captures exactly the balance of action and response that these young dancers displayed.

The youngest group – Hick-Ups – gave us Tumbling Colours, a piece of inspired cooperation by a rainbow-clad group of 13. Frisbees performed Timeless Journey, more abstract in form, due to the inspiration (Yve Tanguy’s Furniture of Time), with some exciting sequences of coordinated movement. Third up, Momentum showed maturity and control in their piece inspired by Brueghel’s picture Children’s Games. Starting with Steve Reich’s minimalist music, the dancers travelled on angular paths, occasionally meeting to tangle or push past each other. A great contrast to the sudden burst into playful leapfrogging and tag to Coumba Gowlo’s club hit Pata Pata.

My favourite – Cosmopolitan by Staccato - felt as if it came direct from the hearts of the dancers. Languid movements to sombre Yann Tiersen (The Piano) gave way to a comic yet poignant section danced to Baz Lurhmann’s apposite lyrics: “Enjoy your body, use it every way you can…don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own….” Finally, the joy of dance won out in wild fiesta style.

The final piece was by the Oxford Youth Dance Company directed by Claire Thompson. Inspired by scientific images from the Oxford Trust, Cycles began with the dancers jumbled up inside white shrouds. Like larvae slowly hatching out of cocoons, the white forms stretched and curled to a haunting Kronos Quartet composition. The life force grew and a stop-start drum and bass rhythm (Aphex Twin) allowed momentary living sculptures to form and disperse. The final moments gave an incredible sense of organic cooperation, bringing to mind a flock of wild geese in flight, before the movements gently settled back into inertia.

Even as a spectator, dance moves you in mysterious ways. It is a gloriously uplifting thing to see a troupe of dancers move across the stage as one. Perhaps a primitive mammalian herding instinct produces our delight in unity of motion. The dancer's faces seemed to imply that to experience rather than observe is equally satisfying.

More advice from Baz: “Dance…even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room!” 

March 2, 2007
Driven - Motionhouse
Thursday 1st March 2007

Two men; three women. The scene is set to explore drive, competition, how far we will go to get what we want and what happens when we lose control. This amazing piece of dance theatre links film, aerial flying, bungee harnesses, whizzing around on stools with castors, and dance techniques ranging from ballet to acrobatics.

I was drawn to this production by the still photos: sharp poses, unusual props and a sense that gravity is optional. The production lived up to all of these promises, but what the stills could not convey was the raw emotion. The story, woven together from scenes of modern life, shows a group of people who are driven to succeed. They compete, they fight, and they fend each other off, in the club, at work, and in the club again until a horrific car accident stops them in their tracks. After a heart-wrenching hospital scene they slowly weave the pieces back together, and we finish in the club where we started. Now the crash survivor stands watching and bemused by the frenetic antics he used to be part of – fighting, fending off, defending and reclaiming.

The dance is very physical and the women throw the men around as much as they themselves are thrown. The girls seem to interact in more ways than the men. One minute they are doing synchronised tequila shots at the bar, then jealously tricking each other over the men, then all five characters are tip-toeing hide and seek through the revolving panels at the back of the set. The individual personalities are developed and everything is acted as well as danced.

The aerial and bungee scenes are spectacular. The cords by turns restrain, frustrate and support, like the relationships they seem to represent. In the hospital the dancers are tossed like puppets at the mercy of events and emotions. Then the bungees, like an emotional bond, let the couples bounce away from each other and return. At times the choreography is terrifying – it seems impossible to ensure each space is only filled with one person at a time. Then it is exploring the nature of interaction, with a gripping ambiguity: are the dancers embracing or fighting, clinging or tugging, loving or hating? Why do we interact with others at all: are they there to fight over, climb up, or catch us when we fall? How will they react if we throw ourselves at them? And what happens to the extra person when the pairs settle down?

All these ideas are explored, but because of the medium one is left to one’s own interpretation and conclusions. The show is funny, beautiful, heart-stopping and deals with soap opera themes, but profoundly. This company take dance and blur the edges, and there are no tutus in sight. They are introducing a lot of people to dance who have never watched it before and this is probably because they’re saying something vital. Kevin Finnan and his crew have managed the impossible: to reflect the problems in society and yet rise above them, quite literally. It’s entertaining and frightening, and inconclusive and dangerously edgy. They’re touring till next Christmas: catch them while you can!

February 28, 2007
Spiegel - Ultima Vez
Tuesday 27 February 2007 

A sparse, harsh stage garnished with a solitary upside-down chair hanging from the ceiling hosted Spiegel, a portfolio of fiercely energetic dance pieces which left the audience dazzled, disturbed, flushed and deliciously exhausted.
Wim Vandekebuys, a Berlin-born director, choreographer, actor and photographer, formed Ultima Vez 20 years ago. Risk, conflict, strength and instinct are the core concepts examined in his work and delivering a ‘living’ retrospective of two decades of Ultima Vez (the performances intend to revisit the emotions and energy of previous pieces, rather than simply re-enact them), Spiegel is an intensely fiery brew.
The dancers contort and balance each other into nerve-racking postures and positions; creating shapes that are confrontational yet intimate – the wrestle could equally be an embrace. The physiques are especially muscular, facial expressions intense and moves conducted with such conviction that Vandekeybus’s company could not be described as anything other than powerful. Furthermore, the power is neither particular male nor female; the choreography is unsympathetic to any potential weakness or difference.
Spiegel is ferocious but that’s not to say there aren’t light moments – interludes where the violence is offset by humour, funk, and fun. The upside-down chair, for example, is actually sat-in with the now wrong-way-up dancer teasing us by impersonating our habitual cross-legged pose. The music will switch from being grating and uncomfortable to a seriously good tune.
Throughout the performance you’re aware that you’re being taken through extremes – there’s no time to ponder the meaning of each piece because already the next sequence will have forcefully snatched your attention. And when the dancers are in need of a rest, Spiegel does not allow the audience any respite, instead, a selection of well-toned nudes squirm around behind the sheer back-curtain - delectably sassy.
Lashings of aggression, a tease of romance and a dash of nudity mixed up with an engrossing soundtrack come together to grant a most satisfyingly brutal performance.

February 26, 2007
Something Wild  Anjali Dance Company
Saturday 24th February 2007
A highlight of the Oxford Dance Festival, the Anjali Dance Company performed 3 emotionally complex yet lighthearted pieces to a packed house at the Pegasus. Anjali, whose name means 'joining of hands' is an inspiring company of contemporary dancers with learning disabilities committed to changing attitudes about who can dance.

The first piece - Saloon - was a tale of love and death set in the Wild West, with all the usual suspects - swaggering cowboys, a priest in a long black coat, and a barmaid swooning over the villain on a wanted poster. The piece had a great variety of pace - from busy action sequences to dreamy siesta, with a solemn funereal finish.

The second piece - Butterfly - combined dance and film. Dressed in flowing white silk, the dancers spun about the stage, twirling and meeting in slow motion sequences inspired by martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. On the screen, hypnotic images mark the passing of the seasons in a butterfly's short life.

The last dance - Save the Last Dance - took place in a nightclub. The set included a full-scale bar, behind which a barmaid looked on distinctly unimpressed with the lager-fuelled lads posturing on the dance floor. Yet underneath all the male peacockry, the dancers told a deeper story exposing hidden inner lives of loneliness and loss.

November 14, 2006
I attended the Press Launch for the Dancin’ Oxford Dance Festival, to be held in Feb/March 2007. We were treated to 3 very different dance displays: flamenco, breakdancing and independent dancing. The formal, graceful flamenco routine by Amarita Vargas, the expressional dance presentation by the Crossover Intergenerational Dance Company, and the breathtaking energy of the Oxford Breakers routine, all reflected and celebrated the diversity of dance culture in Oxford, a theme which will run throughout the festival, with something for everyone.

The festival programme kicks off at the Pegasus Theatre on Sunday 28th January with a youth dancing show by The Mission, finishing on Sunday 11th March at the Oxford Playhouse with a performance by the Crossover Intergenerational Dance Company. In between, there is a variety of dance experiences and shows to suit all tastes and ages – from a week of dance films at the Phoenix (12th-16th Feb), a weekend Dance-a-Thon at various Oxford venues (24th/25th Feb), the first visit to Oxford of the ‘Move-Me’ booth (Playhouse, 26th Feb-3rd March), and various other dance shows, workshops and films.

There will be an official City Centre Festival Launch Event in the Westgate Centre on Sat 17th Feb, 2pm start, with information on events and featuring live performances, to mark the start of this pioneering dance festival – the first ever in Oxford. Be there or be square(dancing) – sorry, bad joke, but don’t miss the pre-launch events!

Visit www.odfonline.org.uk for full details, or contact the Playhouse or Pegasus Theatre, and don’t miss the chance of buying your Festival Pass – for just £1, you can get 15% off performances and 25% off Dance-a-Thon taster sessions, amongst other benefits. I’ll see you there, with your dancing shoes on!
Dragon’s Tale is a fast moving dance adventure invoking the spirit of the fairground, and is proof that dance is something that anyone of any age or ability can enjoy. With literally hundreds of dancers taking part, some amateur, some professional, the stage is a mass of colour and movement, at times looking like a funky GAP advert.

Enter the Dragon, complete with lit-up red eyes, a miniature version of those used in Chinese New Year celebrations, who leads us on a journey through the various eras of fairground life and its attractions. Apparently the dragon was a popular image found on many rides.

We are taken back in time to when the fairgrounds were run by steam and candyfloss glued your teeth together. Merry-go-rounds are created by parents and small children dancing in sweeping circles, complete with smiling and waving; the helter-skelter with its scary dips and rises, told by a long train of excitement and screaming. This part really is a family affair; the choreographer must be either a champion kiddie wrangler or a saint in training.

With a flick of the Dragon’s Tail we are thrown forward through distorting mirrors, to when fairgrounds got hip and the music became more beat box than Wurlitzer. There is a surprise visit from Oxford Breakers, who manage to make break dancing look like it hasn’t had its day at all. This is a fantastic display and gets the audience, many composed of artistic parents and kids, pumped up.

Post interval the tempo picks up. We are treated to faster rides with a spooky black and white ghost train, and the teen fun of bumper cars and fairground flirting. It took me right back to rides on the Waltzer, with the greasy but strangely sexy fair boy, giving your seat an extra spin and a grin, which you knew you shouldn’t return. The Dragon eventually moves on to tell the story in another town.

Fitting music is provided by Restless Blue, resident in a fairground booth at the rear of the stage, one member having worked in and around fairs for most of his life.

Dragon’s Tale is a well-told story and excellent family entertainment.
The acclaimed Mission Black Dance National Showcase features a stunning line-up of talented Black choreographers to inspire and excite those who love dance and those who have yet to try it! Their work draws from many genres including; jazz, contemporary, street and Brazilian dance and martial arts.

Black & Right –the Curtain Raiser for the show was the culmination of this week’s workshops run for young dancers at Pegasus. A buoyant, body popping, multi- ethnic extravaganza based on the story of Rosa Parks. The young dancers had mingled street dance vocabulary with their own ideas and energy. Backed by a mix of Missy Elliot, drum beats and archive interview with Rosa, the result, choreographed by Jeanefer Jean-Charles, was fresh and fabulous.

Rosa Moments – a fluid, punchy, energetic piece created by six contemporary dancers, continues the theme and story of Rosa Parks.  In 1955 she refused to give up her seat on the bus, and in the words of Rev Jesse Jackson, ‘’She sat down in order that we might stand up.” Like a great piece of ever, evolving street theatre this is where talented choreography meets mime.

What really impresses me about their work is how they manage to take the audience on a powerful emotional journey – one finds oneself adrift on a sea of feelings; fear, jubilation, wonder, anger, pride, empathy, sensuality, achievement. The group also have this uncanny way of looking to the horizon, in pause, as if to sense outcome or sea change – beguiling. This really is dancing with knobs on! And I have to say that the Pegasus is one of the most welcoming and ‘community style’ theatres.

Nature V Nurture, choreographed by Menelva Harry, tells the story of parents from the Caribbean arriving in England to make a new life and the impact on them and their children.

Back to the dancing and my favourite piece of the show; Between the Stones and the Stars, choreographed by Louise Katerega. This tells her story of her voyage of self-discovery and quest for identity as a woman of dual English/Ugandan heritage. This is a very moving and thought- provoking piece, which travels between her Welsh catholic upbringing and her experiences of Africa, and encourages one to feel one’s own origins. Powerful, passionate belly-felt dance backed by Baroque/choral music by Oxford based I Fagiolini and various African pieces. This was one of the most creative and evocative pieces of dance I have seen to date.

The final piece, The Total of Four Women, choreographed by Zezé Kolstad, investigates female stereotypes. In the guise of the seductress, the housewife, the single and the career woman, it poses the question, “Are all these traits shared by each woman?” What a fantastic celebration of womanhood. Carrie Bradshaw – eat your heart out!

Wonderful, beguiling, creative… articulate work. I cannot find enough words of praise – if you could see me I would dance it to you, and if I could get thighs like that – how do I sign up for the workshop?
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