The annual Oxford Dance Festival returned to our streets and theatres from the 18 February to 28 March providing a rich programme of creative and varied delights.
I was lucky enough to catch some of the Festival’s events and experience it through interactive participation and watching both indoor and outdoor performances.
Advertised as one of the Festival highlights, the Compagnie Retouramont staged an outdoor free performance of The UK premier of Danse des Cariatides at The Oxford Castle.
This mesmerising spectable of aerial dance, worthy of acobatic status, erupted into life leaving the gathered audience in awed hush. Giant shadows prowled along the stone walls, engulfing the dancers as they soared through the air, suspended from the top of the castle. The ethereal choreography, performed with such ease and grace, deceived the spectators into believing it was pure simplicity, while all the time being underpinned by the technical mastery of world-class performers. Lights and imagery transformed the plain walls into a rich and wonderful world of mystery for the dancers to explore, all the time inviting the audience to follow.
Not content with what they found, the dancers’ exploration took them above the heads of the stunned spectators and confidently onto tight-rope wires. Here, the dancers forms seemed to disappear and the playful characters of innocent children emerged, exploring a dream-world without trepidation. The audience, young and old alike, were still and silent as they left their bodies to join the dancers who were moving along the wires in beautifully innovative ways.
Without doubt this was a performance to remember for both audience and dancers alike.
A great asset to the Festival was the dance piece Between choreographed by Angela Woodhouse and performed by her company of 3 dancers at the Oxford Playhouse, Taylor Burton Studio.
The audience were ushered into the dark studio and asked to move around the space to find a place to stand. As we positioned ourselves as close to the edge as possible -- perhaps an interesting statement about our need for safety, the sequence was interrupted by an intense noise which filled the dark space. Slowly the lights raised revealing a female dancer and the source of the noise: her body contorted and writhed frantically, forcing the material of the large raincoat she was swamped in to scream. Desperately she struggled and finally broke free of the garment; the demon no longer haunting her. Silence reigned and with it the desire for a soundscape to interrupt the tension and accompany the visual aspect. Unfortunately there was no recorded soundtrack throughout. Instead the footsteps of the dancers and the gentle movement of the audience were left with to provide aural accompaniment to the piece; an initially refreshing concept that soon grew dull as the piece progressed. This concept could have worked if the choreography had lent itself to the company’s footsteps creating inventive rhythmic patterns. However, the choreography was mostly pedestrian in nature, alternating between walking and stillness.
One of the more striking elements of the performance was the chemistry between the three dancers which was was truly authentic. We had glimpsed, and perhaps participated in, a tender moment between old friends or lovers.
The Pegasus Youth Dance Company showcased some of their exciting new talent in a performance of Stuck especially for the Festival. Thematically centred around the concepts of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the piece was devised to highlight the issue of mental illness among young people. Having read the programme the audience may have prepared themselves for something heavy and confrontational. However, the piece was to be beautiful and playful with an uplifting quality, touching each audience member in a different way.
Both the choreography and music appeared to be taken from an eclectic source, providing endless surprises. The dancers presented us with perfectly crafted motifs which they played with, relished and passed between the company, allowing the motifs to grow and develop. The piece weaved seamlessly into each sequence; one body moving in endless forms. Each exploration being allowed its full time to mature but moved-on from quickly enough that it would never have time to lose momentum.
The energy among the young cast was palpable. There was a fire in each individual dancer and a collective drive among the company which only grew as the piece developed. They gave the audience a completely connected and committed performance, pushing their bodies to their physical limits.
While the choreography and music were mostly playful, the costumes suggested a sense of masked suffering; pure white and whimsical with the disturbing hint of straightjacket buckles; the contrast creating a beautiful eeriness. As for the dancers, all aged 13-19, there were some truly shining stars, ones to watch for the future.
And finally, to experience the interactive element of the festival, the dance-curious people of Oxford were given the opportunity to try a dance taster workshop. There was everything from flamenco to boogie for babies. Not surprisingly, the ever-increasing popular dance-form hip-hop had a great turnout for its workshop. The teacher had just returned from LA, where she had been training with a professional choreographer, and her refreshed inspiration seemed to spark excitement in the air and in the group. She taught a challenging routine, but reiterated throughout the class that the main aim was to have fun. She managed to create an encouraging environment that helped the group bond and perform some semblance of a routine. This was a great opportunity for people of all abilities to try something new and hopefully find a new long-lasting love for dancing!
All in all the six week long festival provided a great opportunity for anyone wanting to get into dancing and was pure indulgence for die-hard dance lovers!
I can’t wait to see what they bring us next time....
Writer: Breeze Murdoch