Dancin' Oxford Festival 2009

Oxford's annual winter/spring dance festival, various venues
Jan - Mar 2009

March 29, 2009
Twelfth Floor
Oxford Playhouse, 27th March
Dance meets Bladerunner. A dark, crushing institiution where clothes are removed to imprison, but actually free the inmates, gives way to flashes of individual creativity and release, fluidly mixed to a poised and poisoned atmospheric electronic sound track.

Australian dancers bring a Germanic take on modern institutionalism alive. Gibbering chalk drawings are hurriedly rubbed out by a robotic, mannekinesque automaton 'nurse' guard as soon as they appear. Juxtaposing this are displays of intense masculinity and inhibited sexuality confined within the green walls and sparse furnishing of the set.

The movements are highly stylised, but not refined. This is dance as a language, able to communicate richly, yet informal - essentially dance as slang. Throughout the performance people behave largely as animals, fighting over territory and to have the upper hand. Relationships are born, mature, change and are born again. Nothing bars the extent to which individualism can be expressed within this highly logistically restricted environment.

The piece was originally performed in Australia three years ago, and the same cast return to it now, with different personal outlooks and personalities, but engaging once again with the strict physical parameters of the characters as set originally by the production's late writer, choreographer and director Tanja Liedtke. Expect to be amazed and enthralled.

March 20, 2009
John Moran & his Neighbour Saori, Mar 18-20, 2009
"A performance with true genius as its foundation", says the Guardian, and they're not wrong. Prepare yourself for an hour-long rollercoaster ride through music, movement, autobiographical anecdote and more as the real John Moran and his real neighbour, gymnast/dancer Saori Tsukada, enact a dizzying series of interwoven scenes that will have your mind reeling and your heart leaping.

Moran, protege of legendary avant-garde classical composer Philip Glass, has given up the large-scale works he used to produce ("that was an excerpt from my second opera, 'The Manson Family', which I did with Iggy Pop...oh, way back in '91") shifts effortlessly from demonic laughing pixie to heart-rending balladeer to mad scientist and back in the space of seconds, pulling the audience along with him as he accompanies the fluid, pre-programmed, tempo-fixed movements of the mesmorising Saori. The apparent combination of intensity and informality in their onstage relationship is intriguing, and very much a feature of the show. (If you could choose your stalker, I guess you could do worse than one who composes audio portraits of you and gets you to enact them in cleverly interlocking loops.)

One of the keys to this show is the illusory nature of its central technique, which dawns on you slowly as the show progresses. There are some fine, name-drop filled anecdotes too, passing as speedily as rubies tossed from a passing car. Whilst it is a little bizarre to think that someone who for several years shared a girlfriend with Jeff Buckley should be here performing a duo show to a small Oxford audience, this is just another indicator of the North Wall's impressive pulling power. It's a tribute to the venue that it can book artists of such a high calibre almost without anyone even noticing; all the more credit to the excellent tastes of programmer Dan Danson, and to the North Wall itself for filling the swimming-pool shaped gap in Oxford's arts scene with a vital, cutting-edge little venue with shows to match.

If you can still get tickets for their last night (Fri 20th Mar), get them now - this is the most original, inspiring piece of theatre you'll see anywhere for a while.

March 9, 2009
Pegasus Theatre, Friday 6 and Saturday 7 March
Part of the Dancin’ Oxford Festival, this show by Sakoba was commissioned by Pegasus, and features choreography by Bode Lawal, devised in a contemporary African dance style. He has taken inspiration from ancestral ritualistic movements as the basis of the technique. This certainly showed in the dancing, which in turns was rhythmic, shamanic, and gymnastic.

The dancing started with Okan’Nijo (One), when the only un-named dancer in the programme heard a siren call to start the evolution of dance and he gradually and convincingly discovered the movements of his body and transferred the moves to the other five dancers as they came alive to his encouragement. The dancers displayed terrific control and spiritual togetherness as they portrayed the evolution of dance whilst revisiting its origins, the oneness of the title. I really enjoyed this and thought it the highlight of the evening.

The second piece, a solo by Bode Lawal himself, danced to spirituals and a recorded track by Peter Gabriel, was a moving and breathy dance which reflected on a father/son relationship and death. The ancient dance moves were much in evidence, as was mime, and a great deal of sincerity. This dance was created for Bode by Namron.

The final dance, the eponymous Respite, was more chaotic and complex, and difficult to take in on one viewing. It purports to take a look at our modern world through an examination of the effects of our emotions and social behaviours. It was largely successful, although it challenged the audience. I should certainly like to see it again, to fully appreciate its subtleties. The dancers performed the choreography very competently, and with a hypnotic spirituality. It was beautiful at times. Although it had disparate and chaotic sections, it did come together as a whole, but it was not comfortable, which I think was the intention.

Recorded music by the Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra and acclaimed composer Tunde Jegede, and overlaid with live drumming, added to the evening. Respite was directed by Pegasus Artistic Director Euton Daley MBE.

February 23, 2009
In The Genes
Pegasus Theatre, 21st February 2009
In The Genes was a special performance commissioned by The Pegasus Theatre for the Dancin' Oxford festival currently taking place. The take-home lesson from the night's show was that I should really check out more of the upcoming events. In The Genes consisted of three dance-based pieces devised and performed by three parent/child couples. Let us consider each in turn:

The first, Feedback, performed by Jeremy Spafford & Jos Baker, was clearly the star of the show. Jeremy and Jos interacted beautifully, with Jos's fluid movements comically contrasted to against his father's slightly less youthful grace. The whole piece was well choreographed, lovingly put together and performed with passion and energy.

The second, Leaning Towards Dance, by Richard and Tom English, also combined elegant flowing movement on the side of the son with some slightly less elegant and more comic input from the father. A repetition of the themes explored in Feedback, and the fact that they only had five days to devise and learn the piece, meant it didn't quite reach the first's level. Nevertheless; it was still funny, interesting and visually appealing.

For both pieces, apart from the dancing of course, two facets stood out. (1) The music, with some hearty electro tracks and a delightful light-jazz cover of Radiohead's Creep, was well picked to deliver the right energy and mood, and made me want to rush out and download it. (2) The absolutely adorable father/son interaction. It was simply lovely seeing both pairs work together with such obvious joy and enthusiasm, and it made me want to go and spend some time with my own father, the lovable scamp.

The third piece, Blank Canvas, was, I'm afraid, a sorry note on which to end the evening. It involved Emily Levy performing some rather nice singer/songwriter music while her mother, Cecilia Macfarlane, performed a seemingly unrelated stilted movement show by the side. The piece as a whole contained no meaning for me: then the communication was too abstract, in just the way that makes interpretive dance such an easy target for mockery.

All in all In The Genes was a very good showcase for how fun, accessible and entertaining dramatic dance can be. Moreover, Dancin' Oxford will furnish us more such delights in the coming months. I recommend finding out more at www.dancinoxford.co.uk, and if you come to the free site/seeing event on 21st of March you may well find me there.

February 5, 2009
Pandora 88
North Wall Arts Centre, 30 - 31st January 2009
When you tell people you're going to watch two men dancing in a box they tend to give you a funny look. But while this description may be technically accurate it totally fails to encapsulate what Pandora 88 is about. It's a very witty performance, and very German, like Jerome K Jerome crossed with Run, Lola, Run; or Bill Bailey's version of Kraftwerk.

It's terrifically inventive, using simple techniques that are heftily effective. Lighting plays a major part in bringing the different realities to life. In the first boxed scene only the body parts sticking out of the box show up, so four hands and one head appear and seem to move across a screen. The rhythm is dictated by the robotic electronic music. Later, panels in the back of the box light up, and Wolfgang Hoffmann and Sven Till form strange and monstrous silhouettes. I don't know how you rehearse a show like that, when as a performer you can't see the overall effect! I guess they have a good director.

There's no plot as such but the scenes flow from one to another like sand dunes shifting. Playing with an idea seems to turn into exploration, and back to playing. It's so fresh it really seems to be made up on the spot. Hoffmann and Till have a perfect sense of timing, and so all the snippets leave you wanting more, but fully exploring each mood or place. They move from playground to bed, the restriction of prison walls to the limitlessness of space.

If you like your dance to be about something, you might like to know that Brian Keenan's account of his incarceration was one of the starting points. The order of the scenes could also be seen as chronological, starting as we do in childhood. Or there's the issues of masculinity. Male dancers often get this issue foisted upon them, and frankly I think it's pretty irrelevant here: when we see Till and Hoffmann sharing a bed it's more Eric and Ernie than Boogie Nights. I think it's simply about people, but it's open enough for you to make your own mind up.

Like all the best dancers they shed the laws of gravity, so that you'd swear the box (or we) had shifted and suddenly we were looking from above. In space the pair, who must be incredibly strong, slowly and almost lazily drift upwards towards the ceiling. They tumble over each other and remain suspended, until suddenly gravity is switched back on and they fall to a heap at the bottom. It's very very difficult to remember it's not a film, but real live magic in front of you.

The humanity and humour of the performers shine out. There's little speech and yet we feel we know these people inside out. More importantly what we know of them we like. Near the end they become tetchy, claustrophobic and confined. They fight, and it's genuinely painful to watch their aggression. It's sad. They have the whole audience with them.

At the end, as we were leaving, I overheard a group talking. One girl was speculating whether her boyfriend would mind if she brought Hoffmann and Till home to live with them. "They'd only need the shower cubicle!" she said hopefully.
An excited audience greeted the young dancers of the Oxford Youth Dance Company for their seventh performance at the Playhouse. Its founder, Cecilia Macfarlane, says the Company "believes that dance is for everybody … It works in a non-competitive, non-auditioned environment, all dancers having the opportunity to create and perform their own work."

The group is totally inclusive, as was shown in the first item with a dancer in a wheel-chair, sensitively guided across the stage by other dancers and forming an integral part of the piece.

Slipstream’s Positive Spin suggested that the present financial crisis might actually persuade us to live our lives differently. Dancers performed with taut, angular movements, as if in a relentless machine; even their boredom was formalized, until Nina Simone’s song I’m Feeling Good allowed them freedom!

The Uthers produced The Big Bang - four mad scientists in a world of black holes and stars created by other dancers. Costumes and group shapes were inventive, and lighting and stage effects created a magic space.

Urban Dance Group gave us something very different with A Touch of Urban. Here was street and contemporary dance performed by groups of showy, sassy girls. Movements were generally slick, fluid and good to watch.

Untitled (OYT Dance Company) asked "Does loneliness and rejection lead to insanity?" Although the question went unanswered, a lively performance by the cast, dressed in vivid, often fluorescent, costume, was a great success.

The second half started with two pieces of Indian dance performed by Kala Arpan. Nrittanjali was beautifully danced by a group of smiling girls, and the second piece, Shree Ganeshay Dheemahi, was vivid with shimmering red cloths tumbling from above.

W’s showed us Write, Score, Move… with dance ideas inspired by and inspiring art work projected on the vast screen; this was an inventive piece using a full range of movement vocabulary.

The Coma (OCVC) was a dance interpretation of words, dreams and feelings, the dancers in stylish black and with a vibrant use of voice, sound and movement which communicated their theme strongly.

Finally Why Dance? My Dance? (OYD Company), a fusion of voice, dance and film, gave us an insight into why young dancers actually become involved in dance and exactly what it means to them. Voices of individuals speaking about their feelings for dance, and images of dancers in different landscapes provided an effective background for a thrilling range of live movement. The contemporary dance style of the piece was the technical highlight of the evening, and the dynamism, commitment and versatility of the dancers ultimately inspiring for the audience.

There was one important credit omitted from the programme: lighting designer was Ashley Bale, Playhouse Technical Director, whose sensitive use of light and colour added enormously to the atmosphere of each piece. This visual element played an important part in the success of the evening, a tribute to Cecilia, other Dance Directors and Choreographers involved and ultimately of course the young dancers themselves!
Interest in dance is booming, thanks to the television. Programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, which enjoys enormous audience figures, has brought Ballroom, Latin American and Contemporary dance into the sitting room and into everyday life. Dancin’ Oxford, which started three years ago, has benefited from this interest reflecting the increased interest with the reach of its programming. There are a wide variety of performances to sit back and enjoy and also plenty to try out, some of which are free.

At the heart of the festival is the invitation to get dancing. There are two days when, for as little as £2 a session, participants can try out styles seen on the television and much more; from modern jive to tango, jazz to flamenco there is definitely something for everyone.

One of the highlights is the free, site-specific dance piece, SITE/SEEING choreographed by internationally renowned Oxford based choreographers and performed by professional dancers. Starting at Carfax Tower, they will journey around the city’s historic sites.

This year Dancin’ Oxford introduces something different with the Tea Dance Extravaganza – an event for the whole family. Dazzling displays performed by dancers dressed as tea room waitresses and instant ballroom lessons are on offer for everyone who wants an enjoyable afternoon. The Festival organisers hope that people will go as a family, or in a bunch of friends and have some fun and, as a by product, some exercise!

The Festival includes critically-acclaimed national and international dance companies sitting comfortably alongside work of the highest quality by Oxford’s own professional dance practitioners. There are also performances by many local young dancers (some as young as 3 years old!) alongside student and adult community dance groups. Many of these groups can be seen performing at the free Dancin’ Oxford launch in Templars Square Shopping Centre in Cowley on Saturday 7th February.

For film lovers, the Phoenix Picturehouse will be hosting the world premier of five dance film shorts (made by Oxford-based dance film makers & commissioned by OFVM Film Oxford) on Sunday 8th March.

For those who love to dance but get fed up with the DJ’s choice of music, Dancin’ Oxford is organising Oxford’s first ever Outdoor Silent Disco. For this free event participants just grab their IPods / MP3 players with their choice of music and simply turn up and dance. Date and time to be announced later.

MONEY OFF TICKETS: For £1, attendees can purchase a Dancin’ Oxford Festival Pass which will give them between £1 and £5 off event tickets, a free ticket to the Finale Festival Party at The Regal and other benefits.
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