Ballet in Small Spaces Review of 2021

Here follows an account of BiSS activity for 2021.  Apologies for a long post – in the end it proved a full and busy year!  Do hover over names and titles to find embedded links to further information. Special thanks to Maggie Watson for her insightful reviews and reports of events and performances over this year for Oxford Dance Writers, some of which are referred and linked to in this piece.

Beginning the year once more in Covid lockdown meant that teaching continued online from my kitchen. Classes included a weekly session for adult beginners as well as intermediate and advanced classes, occasional Wednesday classes for the Tully Collective, and for a period weekly company classes for Yorke Dance, maintaining professional practice at home.  Dancers attended classes not only from Oxford but also from London, Brighton, Edinburgh, Sicily, Athens, Berlin and even Egypt and Australia; an unexpected bonus of teaching online.

The explosion of dance classes and performances online enabled exploration of unfamiliar styles and ways of working, bringing fresh ideas and material into my teaching; YouTube allowing repeated viewing and close analysis. I enjoyed becoming more acquainted with the work of the Paris Opera Ballet and its school, viewing not only the company’s reopening gala including the iconic défilé, but also studying classwork by legendary teachers Alexandre Kalioujny and Raymond Franchetti.  You can read some reflections on this here.

In a very different vein were the morning open practice sessions hosted during the spring by Charlie Morrissey on Zoom from Wainsgate Chapel in Yorkshire.  No teaching, just the indefatigable Charlie providing an eclectic one hour playlist fresh each day, and welcoming all comers of whatever age or dance genre to do whatever they needed to start the dancing day in companionable online community.  This enjoyable and liberating practice opened my ears, helping me see balletic material in a different light, and explore fresh combinations and approaches to the familiar through continuous dancing, participating in this positive experience alongside other dancers from far and wide.  A real antidote to the isolation of lockdown; I was sad when inevitably they came to a close. 

New formats for connecting with dance have been emerging online, combining academic presentations and discussion with sharing of practice and filmed performance.  I attended one-day conferences, streamings, book launches and sharings of work in progress, enjoying the mix of material and opportunities to interact and ask questions.  Highlights included a wonderful lecture by Jane Pritchard ‘Putting Britain on Point’ about the historic development of the Royal Academy of Dance, and a thought-provoking day of presentations on ‘Dance Practices in Digital Spaces during the Pandemic’.  Further seminars from the enriching DANSOX ‘Dance as Grace’ series, brought together academics in diverse fields with dance practitioners to share different perspectives on the elusive concept of grace.  Online showings of documentary, performance and rehearsal footage included Yorke Dance’s Movement of the Mind, paying tribute to the great Robert Cohan who had sadly died at the beginning of the year; read Maggie Watson’s account of this hereLewys Holt’s intriguing double bill Phrases/Footnotes streamed by Arts at the Old Fire Station mixed different media in a performance that blurred boundaries and confounded presentational conventions; you can read my reflections on it here.

In April I was invited to compere the launch for Ballet: The Essential Guide to Technique and Creative Practice’ edited by longstanding colleague Jennifer Jackson; a beautifully illustrated collection of essays by experienced dance professionals, essential reading for aspiring dancers and importantly their parents, as well as teachers.  Read Maggie Watson’s review of it here.

All this sampling of presentation styles and formats proved useful as I prepared to give conference papers drawing on aspects of my doctoral research into the ballet class.  In quick succession from the end of June I presented at two international conferences.  The first ever Congreso Internacional de Estudios de Danza y Sociedad 24th-25th June was organised by Ana Abad Carles, head of the burgeoning dance department at the Universidad Católica de Murcia in Spain.  Thrilled to be a keynote speaker alongside eminent scholar Mark Franko and inspiring artists Javier de Frutos and Lucía Lacarra.  My paper ‘Investigando la clase de ballet: técnica y arte, teoría y práctica’ involved dusting off my rusty language skills to both write and deliver the paper in Spanish, as well as to answer questions arising.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Cristina de Lucas Olmos for her wise advice and corrections to my text.  Topics at this lively online conference spanned from Russia to South America, and addressed the situation of dance in Spain today, including papers on women in hip-hop and the contribution of new technologies to the study of dance.  Lovely to be part of such an enthusiastic and forward looking gathering; only sorry that I had to present and attend from my cramped home office space, and that we could not join together in person for further animated discussion over a glass of wine.

This was also the case with the extensive CORPS de Ballet International 23rd Annual Conference from 6th to 9th July, whose dramatic title was ‘Suspended in Grand Renversé: Embracing the “Big Upset” and Ballet’s Relationship to Liberatory Practices’, inviting papers reflecting on major cultural changes in the world of ballet.  My paper ‘Research into practice: ballet teaching under lockdown’ was an account of my attempts to incorporate thinking emerging from my research into my practice under the circumstances of lockdown. 

With hosting by Florida State University, the time difference made for a strange daily timetable for a UK participant with sessions starting in the afternoon and continuing till late at night.  As in previous editions of conferences programmed by this friendly body, which represents teachers of ballet in higher education in USA, there was a welcome mix of scholarly papers and practical workshops.  I very much enjoyed Scott Putnam’s sessions introducing Elemental Body Alignment System (EBAS) rooted in Chinese conceptions of the body; sadly this somatic system, which seemed to really complement balletic learning, currently has no practitioners working here in the UK with whom one might study it further.  Stimulating ballet classes were taught by Dwight Rhoden of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and charismatic star dancer Desmond Richardson.  The company is evolving its own signature technique “nique” which aims to bridge the gap between ballet and contemporary dance, making for some fascinating movement content and thought-provoking discussion.  In the wake of Black Lives Matter the conference notably addressed issues of racial diversity and cultural equity in dance from a range of perspectives, including history, practice and pedagogy.  As well as papers challenging thinking and language, I appreciated learning more about significant figures such as inspirational and influential black ballet teacher Doris Jones, and being introduced to the valuable information resource Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet.  Another highlight in a rich programme was a presentation about historic ballet dancer and modernist choreographer Ruth Page, including a reconstruction of a remarkable and innovative solo from the 1930s.

The following day marked the opening of the DANSOX Summer School ‘Unfolding Gesture: Movement, Inscription, Music’.  How wonderful to be back in person in the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda’s College Oxford for another stimulating interaction between academics and practitioners. Numbers limited by Covid safety considerations gave an intimacy and sense of community, as conversations developed over three days.  Opened by Alastair Macaulay giving historical context in his presentation ‘Writing into Dancing’, the mornings provided insights into recent research; but the afternoons were taken over by an evolving choreographic and musical collaboration triggered by a fragment of Beauchamp Feuillet notation.  Starting from improvisations generated by cellist Bruno Guastalla and pianist Eric Clarke, composer Joseph Kay and dancers Thomasin Gülgeç and Estela Merlos developed and deepened their responses over the following days; it was a real pleasure and privilege to witness their increasingly powerful and sensitive dancing and music, and to be able to reflect on it together.  You can read Maggie Watson’s account of the Summer School here.  DANSOX and TORCH continued supporting artists’ creative development over the summer; hosting in July a week’s residency ‘Dancing with Apolloin which choreographer Kim Brandstrup developed a new piece Cupid and Psyche for Laurel Dalley Smith and Liam Riddick.  Later in August a choreographic residency with acclaimed Rambert dancers Liam Francis and Simone Damberg Würtz provided further opportunities to watch wonderful artists sharing their creative process.

In July I was also invited to contribute to a research day at Central School of Ballet in London, in person rather than online.  A private opportunity for staff to share their own research in the morning was followed by a galvanising keynote by Adesola Akinleye, editor of the recent (Re:)Claiming Ballet, and three guest presenters.  Claire Farmer tackled issues of strength training for ballet dancers; I talked about the methodological challenges of observing and documenting the ballet class; and Zhibo Zhao of the Beijing Dance Academy gave a fascinating account of the introduction of improvisation classes into dance programmes there.  We were afforded an opportunity to look round the school’s bright new premises south of the river.  Congratulations to Jamieson Dryburgh, the school’s recently appointed Director of Higher Education, for such a positive initiative and exchange; part of exciting new developments and directions underway at Central.

My final conference presentation ‘Becoming a ballet teacher’ was for the Royal Academy of Dance Centenary Conference, ‘Mapping Dance and Dance Teaching: Past(s), Present and Future’, 3rd-4th September, which had had to be postponed the previous year. Another programme which looked both back and forward; shedding valuable light on historic teachers and their practice, including Katti Lanner and Lucia Cormani, the holistic Laurel Martyn in Australia, and the charismatic and much loved Keith Lester, as well as showcasing examples of innovative pedagogical approaches and scientific research into current practice.  Particularly interesting to be reminded of the thoughtful and original choreography of Norman Morrice, now sadly no longer in repertoire, as well as introduced to the impressive work and beautiful dancers of Alonzo King and his Lines Ballet from San Francisco.

In Oxford I, and those attending my classes, longed to get back in the URC Hall – which by the summer had been shut for 15 months, its small management council daunted by complicated requirements for Covid safety provision.  An offer of help with maintenance, cleaning and programming from Pete and myself was gratefully accepted; and after some work, the Hall began gradually to reopen for test classes, with open windows and reduced numbers.  All my classes are now hybrid, giving the option for those beyond Oxford, shielding or isolating, to continue attending online. The Hall’s scheduling now leaves Saturday afternoons and evenings open for one off events; as a start in August I invited SWRB colleague Susan Lucas to give a Cecchetti inspired class and Ashton repertoire workshop, a privileged opportunity for dancers to embody the opening phrases of his wonderful Symphonic Variations

From the autumn previous hirers began to return and new ones took advantage of what is one of the best spaces for dance practice in Oxford.  These included Oxford Dance Forum (ODF), which instigated a weekly Monday morning slot for members.  These very relaxed sessions have provided a valuable opportunity for local independents to emerge from their enforced hibernation, and, as in the Wainsgate open practice sessions, re-engage with their dance practice in whatever way necessary in company with like-minded colleagues. ODF has also scheduled Saturday afternoon Creative Labs bringing together local dance artists to experiment and try out ideas, and plans to continue these into 2022 on a monthly basis.

ODF also hosted an informal sharing in September, Opening Moves, at which local artists Tingting Yang and Pragna Das showed extracts of work in progress, and talked illuminatingly about their experience in Chinese dance forms and Kathak respectively.  They had previously been part, alongside the improvising performance trio MUE, of an ODF initiative to mark and celebrate International Dance Day on 29th April in collaboration with the North Wall Arts Centre.  Originally envisaged as a live performance, when COVID regulations rendered this impossible the theatre kindly allowed ODF to use the space on the day for a filming opportunity for local dance artists.  The ODF funded Digital Display project supported artists to generate three short dance films, filmed and edited by the immensely professional Chris Atkins, with the lighting and sound support of the North Wall’s experienced technical team.  The completed films were launched online on 17th June in a Zoom event which generated valuable and positive feedback for the artists.  You can view the films here. 

The autumn brought long awaited performances by Yorke Dance at the Linbury Theatre.  The first half of their admired programme Past Present included MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles, preceded by a reconstruction of Martha Graham’s iconic solo Lamentations in Isamo Noguchi’s tube of jersey fabric, powerfully performed by Yolande Yorke-Edgell herself.  The second half premiered the last work of Robert Cohan, Afternoon Conversations with Dancers, miraculously created via Zoom under lockdown conditions, and showcasing Cohan’s compositional wisdom, enabling individual dancers to blossom and shine in profound and reflective solos.  It ended with Yolande’s own deeply felt choreographic tribute to Cohan as her mentor and friend, So It Is.  It was, as always, a delight to work with this supremely committed group as they prepared; coaching new cast members for Sea of Troubles, contributing to a Royal Opera House Live at Lunchtime event, and teaching company classes in the spacious studios of the Royal Ballet.

Freya Jeffs, Abigail Attard Monalto, Susie, Pierre Tappon, Yolande Yorke-Edgell, Stephen Pelton at the ROH Floral Hall

As they say about the buses, “You wait for ages and then two come along at once”; back to back with this intensive activity in London was an exciting project in Oxford, part of Dante in Oxford 2021, a TORCH programme of events commemorating the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante.  Serata Dantesca, devised and directed by Jonathan Katz, integrated poetry, music both old and new, and dance in live performance in the historic Holywell Music Room.  Supported by DANSOX, two dance interventions were inspired by episodes from The Inferno: Thomasin Gülgeç gave a compelling improvisation to foreboding electronic sound from Joseph Kay, and I choreographed a short duet In a dark wood around the opening meeting of Dante (Cameron Everitt) and his mentor Virgil (Nicholas Minns).  You can read Maggie Watson’s responses to these pieces here.  It was energising to revisit this literary masterpiece with composer Jeremy Thurlow, with whom I had collaborated previously on works inspired by the Divine Comedy in 2009-10; we look forward to continuing exploring and responding to this extraordinary source. It was also inspiring to have artist Antonia Bruce capturing the dancing in rehearsal.

Rehearsal sketches for In a dark wood by Antonia Bruce

The year ended with two publications.  My piece ‘Developing craft in the ballet class’ developed from a presentation given in 2020, was published in Dance Research’s Winter 2021 issue.  Two pieces on the education and training of ballet dancers, responding to articles and correspondence over the previous months and entitled ‘Emerging Conversations’, have appeared in the Dancing Times November and December 2021 issues.  Intended to encourage debate, there has already been a response, and I hope more will follow.  With all that has been happening in the wider world the difficulties of dance in a frankly hostile UK environment currently go unremarked and unrecognised; despite its diversity of thinking and innovative practice, and its manifest benefits to health and wellbeing, physical, mental and cultural.  At a time when opportunities to see live performance have been so limited, and the future of new generations of dancers is more precarious than ever, it feels especially important to bear witness to dance’s international community of thinkers and doers, and for dance practitioners to develop confidence in their expertise to make their voices heard in defence and promotion of the value of their art and craft.

Thank you for reading!  Here’s wishing everyone a productive and fulfilling 2022…


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