Ballet in Small Spaces Review of 2017

Looking back on the last day of 2017… This site has been very quiet this year; but even if artistic production and performance has been less in evidence there has been significant BiSS activity of other sorts, both study and teaching…

Having formally presented to the Roehampton dance research community in November 2016, in the New Year I submitted an initial chapter and a summary plan of my dissertation for examination by my Director of Studies Emilyn Claid, supervisor Geraldine Morris and Internal Examiner dance philosopher Anna Pakes. A viva on these submissions in May happily confirmed my upgrade in the PhD progress; the green light to go ahead and write.

As planned 2017 was the year of field research, with observations and interviews conducted of a range of ballet classes with differing purposes. This led me to view work at four major vocational establishments in London, Birmingham and Leeds, an open professional class at a London dance centre, and an adult beginner class in Witney; as well as to examine my own work over the autumn term with adult beginners here in Oxford. It has been a privilege watching the next generation of dedicated young dancers developing their practical understanding and honing their skills; and to hear from committed and thoughtful teachers about their experiences and aims as both teachers and learners; and from class participants of all ages and intentions as to their learning and perceptions. The process of transcription of both interviews and classes is laborious, but I am getting faster, and the time spent listening with extra care to the voices of interviewees reveals a new depth of nuance and understanding. I look forward to bringing the diverse insights being gleaned from this valuable material together in analysis and discussion.

Because of the nature of this year’s activity I have spent less time at the Roehampton campus which has recently been progressively transformed with new buildings and landscaping; I have been truly impressed by the beautiful new library which opened after the summer, and which provides a range of inviting environments for study of all kinds. In April I also enjoyed attending Roehampton’s Centre for Dance Research major conference co-convened with the University of Coventry and De Montfort. Celebrated in Roehampton’s new Elm Grove building, Dance Fields: Staking a Claim for Dance Studies in the 21st Century provided a rich and thought-provoking programme of papers and provocations surveying a wide range of areas of dance scholarship and practice.

Meanwhile work continued sporadically on the revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles for Yorke Dance Project. It has been a pleasure for me to work with the company coaching the ballet and sometimes teaching company class. Performances have continued confirming the power of the work, and despite cast changes this talented group of dancers has gone from strength to strength in building interpretations of increasing depth and conviction. In February a presentation on the work for Dance Scholarship Oxford included the opportunity for an open rehearsal of some key scenes, impressing an audience which included experienced scholars of Shakespeare. You can read my DANSOX presentation about the piece subsequently published on Oxford Dance Writers here.

The culmination of this being participation in Kenneth MacMillan: A National Celebration, the two week festival commemorating the 25th anniversary of his death hosted by the Royal Opera House in October, including performances of MacMillan works by not just the Royal Ballet, but visiting guests Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Northern Ballet and Yorke Dance Project. Three performances of Sea of Troubles in the more intimate space of the Clore Studio sold out almost as soon as the booking opened; and it was especially moving to see it performed, as it always had been originally by Dance Advance, with live music. Audience response was enthusiastic; here’s hoping that there will be further performances of this late masterwork in 2018, its 30th anniversary year…

Further enjoyable guest teaching opportunities in London were facilitated by the new Chiltern railways connection from Oxford Parkway to Marylebone; an evening class for talented advanced students of expert Cecchetti teacher and colleague Julie Cronshaw at the Highgate Ballet School, as well as class, pointework and repertoire study for the new intake of dancers for Images Ballet Company at London Studio Centre led by Jennifer Jackson. It was fascinating to revisit the technically challenging solo from the Raymonda Grand Pas that I had performed years ago with these young dancers embarking on an intense graduate year to emerge as young professionals. I returned in November at Jennifer’s invitation to teach in collaboration with talented viola player Tom Widdicombe a workshop for this eager and hardworking group on embodiment of character, drawing on improvisation strategies developed through the Avid for Ovid work of recent years.

Teaching at URC has continued with rising class numbers and gratifying signs of progress, some dancers successfully making the transition from beginner level to more advanced classes. It has been wonderful to be able to call on Ségolène Tarte, now finding her own distinctive teaching voice, to stand in occasionally for me, enabling classes to continue consistently; as well as teaching for East Oxford School of Ballet and Oxford Academy of Dance she has added valuably to Oxford’s adult ballet offer by providing additional classes over the summer break, and her own new Tuesday evening class at Marston, details here. Attending her summer classes was both challenging and refreshing for my own dancing practice, which I continue to maintain by taking class with master teacher Roger Tully on a regular basis. Although nearly 90 years of age, Roger continues to make the journey up to London once a fortnight to work with a small but diverse group of experienced dancers; on the alternate weeks one or other of us takes the responsibility of teaching the group. These weekly sessions are unique in their companionable investigation through the dancing of basic principles of ballet technique and pedagogy; always followed by coffee and conversation, a precious opportunity to share and mull over our dancing both in its immediate detail and broader context. Invaluable input to my own research; an on-going connection through my own embodied experience of balletic material to the central questions shaping my thesis.

Hugely missing collaborative and choreographic artistic activity I leapt at an opportunity provided by Caroline Salem for a week’s shared residency in the tranquil setting of the studio at Clarence Mews in Hackney during late August. This sensitively mentored intensive gave me time and space to play with balletic material in improvisation, and revisit the beautiful soundscapes of the music of saxophonist and composer John Surman with whom I originally collaborated on Private City choreographed for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1987. Places of the Mind, an exhibition of British watercolour landscapes from 1850 to 1950 at the British Museum, serendipitously provided inspiration for the generation of some short personal studies. Invited by Assembled Artists, dynamic young choreographers Holly Noble and Richard Bermange, to join them in contributing to an experimental evening of short ballet based works in the unusual setting of the Oak Room at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden in September, I showed two of the emerging fragments. Performing in an informal and intimate cabaret setting with waitresses bringing hamburgers and glasses of wine felt surprisingly comfortable; ballet in a very small space indeed, enabling real connection with an engaged and positive audience. I look forward to developing these fledgling pieces further…

The end of this year tinged with real sadness and the unexpected loss of three valued dance colleagues. Holly Price had been at Tetlow Hume Ballet Studio, my very first ballet school in Oxford, before going on to the Royal Academy of Dance to study, ultimately becoming a much loved and respected teacher there. She succumbed to cancer in late August. Her memorial service at St Mary’s Church in Battersea in December brought together her family and ballet family of the RAD in moving remembrance. Utterly shocking too the sudden demise of distinguished dance anthropologist Professor Andrée Grau while in France teaching; her warm and inspiring presence is greatly missed by the dance community at Roehampton University. And ultimately the tragic loss of lovely dance artist Ana Barbour early in November has left a gaping hole in the Oxford dance scene. I felt honoured to speak about her on behalf of the wider dance community at her memorable funeral at her home in the North Oxfordshire countryside, a day of autumnal beauty that provided a perfect frame for the many tributes spoken, sung and danced that accompanied a procession to her final resting place. I have posted a tribute page to Ana on Oxford Dance Writers here, with links to writings by and about her and some of her unforgettable projects.

Three wonderful examples of dedicated exploration, commitment and integrity enriching the lives of others; not a bad guide to hold in one’s mind going forward into the turbulent unknown of 2018! On with the dance; here’s wishing you both beauty and fulfilment in the coming year…

Susie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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