It takes a few years for a new festival to get itself really embedded, and to me, Dancin Oxford Festival feels like it's got there. The organisers may not agree, but once people begin to expect it then the whole job of spreading the word begins to take care of itself. This year there seem to be even more events from even farther afield, celebrating more different styles of dance, and last night it was the turn of tap to come into the spotlight.
Sole Rebel are a six-strong all-female dance troupe, and the new show Tapestry is the result of two very different musical collaborations. In the first half the music was a mix of eras, but traditional, harking back to the tapdancing heyday of Astaire and Rogers. The dancers, clad in tailcoats, were all highly skilled but each with individual styles - balletic, athletic, angular and fluid. I've probably never seen that many tapdancers all together to see how different they could be.
My favourite piece in this setup involved Marie-Louise Flexen as Charlie Chaplin, dancing with a cane and doing a bit of hiphop. It may sound like an unholy mix but she had excellent comic timing, and it was funny, quirky and warmhearted.
Each piece involved a different combination of dancers and it was fun to see how the tapping became a conversation - sometimes question and answer, sometimes outdoing each other, sometimes the whole troupe perfectly in sync and other times setting up a rhythm and a counterpoint.
The first half finished with a musical set from Alice Offley, the collaborator of this half. Its tone was perfectly in keeping with the dancing - witty, warm, heartbreaking and bluesy. She was great fun, and I could feel my audience neighbours drumming rhythms around me - none of us could keep our feet still!
The mood of the second half was very different. The second collaborator was an electronic musician called Debian Blak, and we began with his music set. A looped film was projected on to the backdrop, as he manipulated a bewildering array of buttons and dials.
Now, I can understand the frustration that tap dance might have, in that if any of us were asked to name a famous dancer we'd probably come up with someone who hung up their shoes 50 years ago. I thoroughly approve of bringing the genre up to date. It's not either that I dislike electronic music per se. There are some great VJs out there. And Debian Blak clearly has a sense of rhythm.
But his set left me cold, and judging by the fidgeting, talking and in the end laughter, I was not alone. Fortunately, since Blak did not make eye contact with the audience, and the music he was plugged into with his earphones was so loud, he did not seem to notice the unfavourable reaction. He got a good round of applause too, so there was definitely support for his work.
There followed more dancing, this time to Blak's music. A duet between Blak (sitting on a snared and mic-ed box) and a dancer was fun, and there was a lovely improvised section, a sort of dance-off, where the dancers took it in turns to go into the middle and tap a sequence, and cheered each other on. But I felt the dancing had lost some of its sense of fun.
What started as a celebration of female solidarity and strength was lost with song titles like "I can't wait baby", "Don't say no" and breathy female singers singing lyrics about not having any control. What started as a superb exploration of how dance can communicate all sorts of things went astray, as I couldn't work out what Blak's music was trying to tell us, except how cool he was. And if I'm totally wrong and he's the best VJ around then it was still a rather abrupt change of tone, and largely the wrong audience, who felt they'd been trapped and then experimented on.
My personal prejudices aside, it was a great evening, and I'd definitely urge everyone to check out Sole Rebel, and (if they inspire you) attend one of their classes in Oxford. And there is more of Dancin' Oxford still to come, to explore many and varied dance styles, much of it in the Pegasus' welcoming space.