Ballet in Small Spaces Review of 2016

Looking back on the review of 2015, 2016 didn’t work out quite as expected – but in a year of global upheaval that is perhaps hardly surprising…

Following on from Two old instruments, an amazing opportunity had presented itself in December 2015 to work with Baroque musician Evelyn Nallen on a recreation of what could claim to be the first dramatic ballet in which a story was told without recourse to words, but through dance and mimetic gesture. John Weaver’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was premiered on 2nd March 1717 at Drury Lane.   His original scenario survives, and Evelyn and dance historian Moira Goff had used it as a base to put together a score of suitable period music; the idea to recreate the work incorporating some authentic dance material of the period but to reset ensembles and the gestural scenes, which Weaver had originally “attempted in imitation of the Pantomimes of the Ancient Greeks and Romans”.   This fascinating project was set to be unveiled on the 300th Anniversary in a truly period magnificent setting with a team of 14 dancers, 7 musicians and an actress. Unfortunately despite our best efforts and heavyweight support from some big names including Dr Richard Ralph, Weaver’s biographer, we were unable to raise sufficient funds; and ultimately lost our venue through factors beyond our control. The project has now morphed into an intimate play with music and authentic dance “Mr Weaver’s Dramatick Entertainment”, but I am sadly no longer involved. I will however keep you posted of performances of what should be a very enjoyable celebration of a truly notable date in the history of ballet.

I also withdrew with great reluctance from the project with long-term colleague Jennifer Jackson and the Maxwell Quartet to collaborate on making a piece for Images Ballet Company of London Studio Centre which Jennifer now leads. But I was delighted to be able to contribute in the very early stages to the creative process of exploring and responding to Prokofiev’s 2nd String Quartet ‘On Kabardinian Themes’, and to act as an Artistic Consultant to Images. Jennifer made a beautiful piece which showcased the quality and potential of her small team of dancers as part of a programme of work giving a fresh perspective on ballet through its rich and enjoyable repertoire connecting past with present.   She continues this exciting work with a new group of dancers this year.

Meanwhile Avid for Ovid started the year grappling with ACE’s ponderous and byzantine new Grantium funding application process. Our aims: to fund the making and rehearsal of additional suitably plant focused episodes for our appearance in Ovid’s Garden, to produce some quality filmed material of existing pieces for use in disseminating and promoting our work, and to work with Movement Director Struan Leslie. Struan’s immense experience in dance and theatre, his association with Oxford’s APGRD (Archive of Performance of Greek and Roman Drama) and his previous work on chorus movement in Greek drama makes him the ideal person to help us find a way to join our existing fragments ultimately into a coherent longer performance. We had an inspirational workshop day with him in April at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building (thank you to Fiona Macintosh and St Hilda’s College for access to this splendid facility), which opened our eyes to new ways to enrich the depiction of our characters including through conjuring up the spaces they occupy. We drew profitably on this to link chosen episodes for our performance in June in the now luxuriant and blooming Ovid’s Garden in Winterbourne Gardens in Birmingham as the culmination of Miriam Bay’s imaginative doctoral research project; you can read more about this delightful occasion and see pictures on the A4O blog here.

I subsequently performed my solo Pan and Syrinx at the Old Fire Station as part of Donald Hutera’s eclectic and ever surprising GOlive, which returned to Oxford for four nights in July with a selection of work by independent dance and performance artists both local and national. You can read reviews by Maggie Watson, Barbara Berrington and Emily May of the different programmes on Oxford Dance Writers by scrolling down here. Sadly Avid for Ovid’s grant application was ultimately not successful; and our performance activities are currently temporarily on hold as we renegotiate our Artists in Residence status at Cheney School, who had been generously supporting us with access to rehearsal space…

On a positive note, Sonia Yorke-Pryce’s evocative compilation film of mature dancers Interprete/Inappropriate Behaviour has had more international and UK outings at dance on screen festivals and events discussing the older dancer; at Dancescreen 2016 in Austria, Dance East’s day of presentations and workshops HOST in July, ITAC3 The Third International Teaching Artist Conference 2016, Edinburgh in August, Tasmania Performs/Mature Moves in Hobart in September, and at the Stockholm Dans Film Festival in December. Further showings are planned for February and March 2017 in Brisbane and Canberra.  I was delighted to be able to present Sonia’s record of my improvisation for this on February 29th as part of Leap Day Dancing at the Old Fire Station at the invitation of Cecilia Macfarlane and Joëlle Pappas.  You can read more about this joyous celebration of 10 years of Dancin’ Oxford and the work of Oxford dance artists here.

A major activity this year has been my involvement with Yorke Dance Project.  As part of a programme of works old and new which span the contemporary/ballet divide this enterprising company have revived Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles based on Hamlet, of which I was an original cast member.  Jennifer and I were founder directors with Michael Batchelor and Sheila Styles of the breakaway chamber ballet company Dance Advance, and we commissioned this work from MacMillan for our first national tour in 1988. Jane Elliott has revived it from the original notation, and I have rehearsed a talented and committed new cast. You can read more about the revival and see rehearsal pictures here. Following a packed out preview at the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House in March, the company had its first tour date at The Mill in Banbury in September. But the work was also included in the extensive programme of the Shakespeare Oxford 2016 Festival. I led an open rehearsal in the majestic atrium of the Weston Library on 18th September, where visitors were able to watch the analysis and performance of sections of this powerful dramatic work. Other activities around Sea of Troubles included a very stimulating workshop with Struan Leslie in Summertown Library, and I made a presentation for the Banbury Dance for Parkinson’s group, who under the sympathetic guidance of Paula Bailey had studied elements of the piece, and later came to watch the dress rehearsal at the Mill.  Sea of Troubles was well received in performances by the company at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells in October, and further performances and a Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) event will follow in February 2017; aptly, as the year to come marks another major ballet anniversary – 25 years since the death of Kenneth MacMillan.

Finally, the elephant in the room, looming ever larger… Academic study has continued, with much reading into such realms as the sociology of physical education, and a couple of substantial book reviews for Oxford Dance Writers of works particularly relevant to my research; you can read them here and here. Out at left field, a trip to Paris in July to attend the 7th International Society for Gesture Studies Conference, a gathering of over four hundred to hear – and see signed – thought-provoking papers from a vast diversity of fields. Among the highlights for me a mime workshop, an introduction to SignArt, and a paper on the posture and proxemics of shop window mannequins… At the end of summer I finally received full ethical approval for my PhD field research and can therefore now embark on my programme of observations of a range of ballet classes. This has already begun, with my transcription and analysis of a Royal Ballet class on YouTube by way of a pilot; and just before Christmas, field notes on class with Roger Tully, still teaching every other Wednesday at Blandford Street, and whose classes I attend as much as possible. While being a laborious process, detailed documentation gives some fascinating insights, so is proving well worth it. Conquering my distrust of Powerpoint through a couple of practice runs at school events in Oxford this term, I was able to use it for a presentation about my analysis as part of my upgrade process at the end of November, and will be submitting a written chapter at the end of January… a three day writing retreat at Roehampton is my first commitment in the New Year…

Both feeding and influenced by my research, ballet teaching continues at URC with busy classes, friendly groups, sincere dancing and encouraging progress visible over time. My significant birthday in the summer was marked by a joyous surprise reunion of friends organised by my family.  Wonderful to reconnect and celebrate with dancers with whom I have shared so much.  One of my presents was cello lessons; which I am hugely enjoying, and finding a salutary and revealing reminder of what students in my beginners’ classes must be going through… In these difficult and turbulent times the solace of music and dance is especially to be cherished and cultivated – so as they say “Keep dancing!’’

Wishing you all the best for 2017,





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