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British Dance Edition 2004
- state of the art

by Stuart Sweeney

January 29-31, 2004 -- Cambridge


So what’s the most important UK dance event of 2004: the visit of the Bolshoi, Dance Umbrella, Edinburgh Festival perhaps? My guess is that for most UK dance companies it will be British Dance Edition 2004 (BDE), held in Cambridge from 29-31 January. This year’s trade showcase of UK dance featured 31 companies and some 450 delegates from 45 countries. And it does produce bookings, as Michael Nunn of the Ballet Boyz told us in their pre-performance home video.

The National Dance Agencies take it in turns to shoulder the enormous task of the organisation of the event and this time the “lucky” NDA was DanceEast. Director Assis Carreiro and her team worked wonders and all went remarkably smoothly. However, the schedule was inevitably cramped with performances and receptions running almost without a break from 12 noon to 12 midnight on each of the three days with frequent pleas to “quickly board the coaches” or join the snake to the next theatre. Given that not every company who wanted to be here could be scheduled and the possibility that the next BDE in 2006 could be even bigger, perhaps the time has come to consider a shift to a four-day schedule. Alongside the shows there was a trade fair where the companies, agencies and others could tell their tale and each morning seminars exploring dance on film and the problems facing dance producers.

An event like this can be seen as a snapshot of the current state of the dance art in the UK and it’s worth asking whether any trends can be identified. In the divide between “dancey” and conceptual work, some overseas delegates were surprised that the balance was slanted so much to the former. My impression was of much hyper-kinetic dance, which sometimes proved exhausting for audience members as well as performers. In terms of  “who’s hot”, one measure is to look at those who had two works on display and the resulting names - Fin Walker, Russell Maliphant and Wayne McGregor - must be close to the top of the pyramid for most observers.

There can always be a variety of reasons why a particular performance doesn’t make an impact on a critic, but the list is expanded at an event like this where the feast of dance can induce artistic indigestion, the venues are sometimes not ideal and some works are scarcely out of the studio door and will no doubt gain strength as they are taken out on the road. Thus I shall focus on those performances that did make a positive impression.

Protein Dance’s “The Banquet” opened the proceedings with stylish fun. After a short history of evolution, we see a dinner party from Hell where the four guests are repeatedly stripped of a veneer of sophistication and revert to apes or dogs at the drop of a hat. The wonderful expressionist stage designs help this distortion of reality and the quirky movement is strong enough to retain interest between the jokes. Maybe “The Banquet” could lose 5 minutes, but it’s good to see a work that runs against the main trends in UK dance.

Maresa von Stockert “Nightmares in Black and Green” image by Merlin Hendy

A second fun piece was Maresa von Stockert’s “Nightmares in Black and Green”. Afterwards I was amazed to realise that it lasted as long as 25 minutes, so packed is it with good jokes and intriguing movement. Constructing a story around suburban life, apples, a failed relationship and a blow-up sex doll is tough enough, but von Stockert combines this heady mix with a voice-over narrative, often a kiss-of-death for dance, and makes it all work. Roberta Pitrè’s solo on top of a kitchen table is full of invention and Antoine Vereecken’s duet with the doll is beautiful rather than merely comic.

George Piper Dances made a second visit to BDE with their “Critics Choice *****”, a collection of five short dances by leading choreographers. They were a hit with the overseas bookers I spoke to and the mix of high quality performance and jokey videos offers much, especially for those seeking younger audiences. Oksana Panchenko excelled in Russell Maliphant’s “Trio” and Christopher Wheeldon’s original short version of “Mesmerics”, which makes a greater impact than the extended version. There are clearly logistic problems in the major ballet companies appearing at BDE, so it was good to have this collection of small gems made on this chamber ballet group.

Richard Alston’s “Overdrive” closed the evening show on the first evening and it’s lyrical joie de vivre lifted my spirits, with dancers jumping in attitude. Alston ignores fashionable trends, resulting in a welcome differentiation. In an afternoon showing of South-East Asian Dance, Sonia Sabri performed traditional Kathak with great skill and grace. Her hands wove spells in the air and her stamping dialogues with Sarvar Sabri’s tabla underlined that Kathak is a dynamic and varied dance form.

Walker Dance Park Music “Silence of the Soul”, image by Ravi Deepres

Fin Walker’s new work “Silence of the Soul” features seven dancers in bursts of energy and lengthy pauses with reflective poses. These are some of the finest dancers in the country and all their skill is necessary to navigate Walker’s dynamic steps and interactions. The Company is now called Walker Dance Park Music, reflecting the importance of the collaboration with Ben Park’s jazz inspired live music. There are several gorgeous duets at a slower pace and this contrast enhances the staccato sections. The dancers told me that the work is still changing and developing, so I look forward to seeing it again later in the spring tour.

The triple bill from the second evening sent virtually everyone away happy. Russell Maliphant’s “Choice” features an expanded group of five dancers and this enables the choreographer to explore different aspects of geometry. Ensemble work and symmetry play a stronger part than I can remember in a Maliphant work and, taken together with his new work “Broken Fall” for George Piper Dances, we can see that this brilliant choreographer continues to develop, and to delight audiences.

Kim Brandstrup is another dance maker who follows his own path. His use of modern dance for story telling has not always found favour, but I’m pleased that he is now receiving the credit he deserves. “Afsked” was made for Johan Kobborg’s “Out of Denmark” programme and it was good to see it again. Zenaida Yanowsky combines fine technique with flair for characterisation and, in this melancholy duet of the final stages of a love affair, Brandstrup uses her exquisite line not just to make beautiful shapes, but also to express anguish. Dylan Elmore impressed in a duet with Gildas Diquero last year and with his eloquent partnering of Yanovsky here showed again that he is a very welcome addition on the UK dance scene.

Wayne McGregor’s own section from the tri-choreographer “Polar Sequences” looked much better in Cambridge’s large Corn Exchange than it had done in the intimate setting of The Place. The initial Purcell section shows off his excellent dancers in tightly focussed ensemble work and with the Scanner sound collage which follows we switch to an expanded rehearsal space and smaller scale combinations while the other dancers rest languidly around the borders. All the performers are outstanding and, as ever, Laila Diallo’s dancing takes your breath away.

Among the various receptions the most enjoyable for me was the launch of by Dance UK, The Foundation for Community Dance and The Place Artist Development. The cool beauty of Kettle’s Yard Gallery made the conversation with dancers and administrators even more enjoyable than usual and I had a blissful moment when I turned my head and stopped in mid-conversation (what a blessing I hear you say) as several pieces by one of my favourite sculptors, Constantin Brancusi, crossed my field of vision. If you’re in Cambridge, do include this high quality gallery on your list of things to do.

On the final evening we saw Henri Oguike’s new work “White Space”, which is unlike his previous output, but that’s often the way with Oguike and is a refreshing aspect of this gifted, young choreographer. The piece blends early dance and modern steps to Scarlatti, all located in a white wonderland. With video interludes, witty references and fascinating ensemble and solo dancing, “White Space” is another work I want to see again. Rambert Dance Company has an ever-growing list of awards and recently returned from performing to enthusiastic audiences in China. Rafael Bonachela has re-worked his “Linear Remains” and told me that his growing confidence with larger scale ensembles encouraged him to include three additional dancers. The work still opens and closes with Amy Hollingsworth’s spiky extensions and a memorable image of her elbow protruding above her head as she walks to the back of the stage. In between we see rapid movement with a flow and coherence. Overall, in addition to the quality of the dancers, one impression from BDE2004 is of a number of leading UK choreographers continuing to make progress, which bodes well for the future.

After the final show, there was just time for a quick drink with delegates from Latvia and Lithuania and then back to the station for the last train home. BDE is a remarkable event and I hope it achieves its primary goal of a hatful of bookings. Certainly for this dancegoer it represented a unique opportunity to assess the state of UK dance art and share views and experiences with a host of those who make dance happen around this country and the world.

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