tue 06/10/2015

Henri Oguike & OAE, Queen Elizabeth Hall / Richard Alston Dance Company, Touring | Dance reviews, news & interviews

Henri Oguike & OAE, Queen Elizabeth Hall / Richard Alston Dance Company, Touring

Dance and music take hands with two infectiously musical choreographers

Enlightenment: Rhiannon Morgan and Edward Kitchen in Oguike's V4

Music is the food of dance - music as either an emotional language to speak back to, or an environment to set a mood or find associations in. The former is highly demanding, and Henri Oguike and Richard Alston are two who are clinging to the wreckage of British contemporary dance as art, not theatre. To see them on consecutive nights is to be reminded how ambitiously contemporary dance can aim, when the imagination reaches with a limited body language to try to link into a parallel world of utterly different definitions.

I try to think what good dance feels like to watch - and I say, “feels like”, because good dance, however abstract, has a way of making your body wriggle, it catches your physical heartbeat, it sometimes jolts you in the brain, or makes the tears start up behind the eyes. But deep down, even if it is divorced from music (like Merce Cunningham or Lucinda Childs, say) good dance gets under your skin because an individual over there on the stage has hooked into your nervous system.

But it’s often by tortuous means that a choreographer gets there. Take Henri Oguike, who, praise be, is back in business despite the crass axing of his Arts Council grant last year. He hooked up this weekend with the lively Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Southbank Centre for a dual-arts staging of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in which his six dancers took over the front stage while a small clump of the OAE sat behind, and solo violinist Kati Debretzeni wandered between the two areas.

It’s a bit awkward, more like a lecture presentation than a union, but the ingredients of the debate are quality. The sound of the OAE band is wiry and rustic, old in an exciting way with the full band together and the unusual middle-pinning by the theorbo, an eyecatchingly long-necked early lute strumming as vigorously as the strings are scrubbing.

The solo violin is another matter - I can’t enjoy the scratchy, unwell-tempered tuning of Debretzeni’s baroque violin, it grates like nails on a blackboard. Nor do I quite believe that Vivaldi’s melodious ears would have been delighted by this low-calorie string sound. He lived during the golden period for violin-making - instruments were pouring out of the Stradivarius, Guarneri and Amati workshops that, even before modern adjustments, were surely being explored for their juice and poignancy of timbre.

Oguike has the most eclectic and inquisitive musicality of any choreographer I can think of in the UK

However, Oguike (who has the most eclectic and inquisitive musicality of any choreographer I can think of in the UK) took the skimpy sound as a bridge into an earthy folksiness that slapped imaginary boots and aprons on these dancers over their functional vests and pants.

The individuality of this half-Welsh, half-Nigerian choreographer is that, while you see the classical lyricism of the “British contemporary” in him (from his Richard Alston training), there’s a distinctive thump, pulse and bottom-waggling swagger in the bold way his choreography seizes the whole stage space, even when not all the dancers are surrendering fully.

You unconsciously breathe more deeply, you smile with sense of well-being, when a line of Oguike dancers drive over the stage defiantly smacking their bare feet on the ground, or throw clenched fists exultantly over their heads. You could imagine the beautiful Sunbee Han as the dance’s more sensuous equivalent to the violin soloist, with her airy fingers, arching body and luxuriantly splayed toes.

alston hunisuccle premiere

Over with Richard Alston, who launched his spring UK tour last night in Wimbledon, I’m watching someone 20 years older than Oguike, formerly Oguike’s boss and mentor who grew up in a less hungry, fraught era for dance. Alston’s position as the elder statesman of British dance almost exactly describes his dance too. The principles are sound, the skills are excellent, the aspiration faultless. What comes only fitfully is a sense of being arrested by something that had to be said, in order to live to the next dance. 

Last night saw the world premiere in the New Wimbledon Theatre, south-west London, of Buzzing around the Hunisuccle, a cute country name (which would fit Oguike’s Vivaldi, actually) for a high-quality art-gallery kind of dance. The American composer Jo Kondo’s music is delightfully syncopated in various discreet percussive textures of marimba and piano, descanted with high and low flutes. We have an atmosphere of dark contemplation, with a floor of paving-patterned light, though the dancers are puzzlingly dressed in bright tabards, like lollipop ladies. (Picture above from an earlier incarnation, © Tony Nandi)

The dance is scrupulously calibrated in exact phrases on light tiptoe that work up to a balance point and tilt smoothly off it.  There are little glimpses of wit in it, and a steady ebb and flow in the mechanism that ease through the stops and starts in Kondo’s very catchy music. It's elegant and exact, and should probably be performed in the Royal Observatory next to John Harrison's time-keepers, which were all about bringing stability amid unpredictability. I don't know how interesting that really is, in dance.

Jason Ridgway plays finger games with the ragtime music, and the whole thing is chockful of truly delightful details

More cherishable, less consciously arty, is Alston’s sweet Scott Joplin ensemble, The Devil in the Detail, in which you can almost see dew and grass-stains on bare feet. They’re dressed like country folk in chinos and chintz, dancing around the brilliantly fun-loving pianist Jason Ridgway as he plays finger games with the ragtime music, and the whole thing is chockful of truly delightful details. Best of all, the dancers have taken it to themselves, so it’s no longer Alston’s, it’s theirs and therefore ours.

Nathan Goodman is another of those rare Alston dancers who demands the right to repossess choreography, and in Martin Lawrance’s Madcap it’s his ferociously fast-switching solo work that grabs the eye. The choreographer apparently conceived it as a fierce duologue between a maverick and the group he wants to infiltrate. In the dramatic chiaroscuro light, the resisting group dances at top speed, but speed in a group leads to bluntness - they can’t hope to emulate Goodman’s stiletto dangerousness.

  • Henri Oguike Dance tours with V4 and other work to Aachen's Schrittmacher Dance Festival, 22-24 Feb; Teatro Comunale, Bolzano, Italy, with the OAE, 19 Mar; The Lighthouse, Poole, 2 May and Curve, Leicester, 24-25 May (with taped music)
  • The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform Mozart with Andras Schiff in Yeovil, 20 Feb; Oxford, 22 Feb; London's QEH 25 Feb. Further dates on their website
  • Richard Alston Dance Company tours a revolving repertoire to Swansea, 14 Feb; Yeovil, 20-21 Feb; Exeter, 26-27 Feb; Canterbury, 6-7 Mar; Norwich, 12-13 Mar; Salford, 19 Mar; Woking, 21 Mar; Cardiff, 26 Mar; Aylesbury, 5 Apr; Bridlington, 11 Apr; Malvern, 23-24 Apr; Oxford, 30 Apr-1 May; Shrewsbury, 8-9 May; Cambridge, 13-14 May; Southport, 23 May; London Barbican, 29 May

Watch Alston’s dancers in 'Isthmus', the germ of ‘Buzzing around the Hunisuccle’

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