News, Events & Writing

Talk about Dance – sessions at The Mill, Banbury

I’ve been developing a new strand of my Dance Audience Club work with The Mill arts centre in Banbury, as part of their Surf the Wave follow-on funding working with choreographer Seeta Patel and her Bharata Natyam reimagining of The Rite of Spring.

I will lead two workshops called ‘Talk about Dance’ at The Mill, in the weeks leading up to the performance of The Rite of Spring. These will be open to anyone with any level of knowledge (including none!) and will give the opportunity to explore the world of the piece and to discover some questions we might ask ourselves when watching…

The two sessions will cover different aspects of the work so can be attended individually or as a pair.

  • Session 1 – Sunday 17 May 2020, 10.30am-1.30pm
  • Session 2 – Friday 22 May 2020, 10.30am-1.30pm

BOOK HERE

Seeta Patel’s The Rite of Spring will be shown at The Mill on 1 June: BOOK HERE

Festival Dance Audience Club

I’m very excited to be piloting a new model of the Dance Audience Club for Dancin’ Oxford this Spring! This will be a bit like a book club but instead of talking about books, we’ll talk about live dance! The costs includes heavily discounted tickets for three shows, as well as facilitated discussions.

Dance Audience Club

February 29, 2020 to March 6, 2020

£30, includes a ticket to the 3 shows & an informal post show chat

BOOK HERE

Moving with the Times 29 February (Pegasus, Oxford), Gecko 3 March (Oxford Playhouse), Richard Chappell Dance 6 March (Pegasus, Oxford)

Are you dance curious? Do you enjoy talking about live performance?  Then join our new Dance Audience  Club – a bit like a Book Club but for live dance!

As a small, friendly group you will meet for an introductory chat to think about how to describe our dance experiences.  You will watch the three Festival dance performances above together (see brochure details for all shows) , and enjoy an informal post-show discussion plus a post-festival social.

This is a great opportunity for people who

* like watching dance but don’t have anyone to go with

*  would like to build confidence in watching and talking about dance,

* are unsure about whether they like dance but are interested in finding out

Led by Miranda Laurence, independent dance dramaturg, this is a pilot scheme for Dancin’ Oxford.

Review: Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero

Review of Gregory Maqoma’s Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Bolero, Barbican, Dance Umbrella, 17 October 2019

Review originally published in The Theatre Times, 23 November 2019

In darkness, a quiet sobbing, acutely intimate in the vastness of the Barbican main stage. Now crying, now whimpering, the amplified voice grows in aching graduality. I can’t but reflect on the pain that I feel on listening to another human being’s voice of sorrow. It’s uncomfortably long, uncomfortably obvious, and it reels me in.

This is an extraordinary beginning to an extraordinary piece. Gregory Maqoma is a prolific and successful South African choreographer who has a well-known presence in the UK through collaborations with choreographers including Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as well as a recent high-profile collaboration with Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah in Tree. He founded Vuyani Dance Theatre 20 years ago while undertaking a scholarship at P.A.R.T.S. in Belgium under the direction of Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker.

In Maqoma’s choreography, all the performers exude an assuredness which is completely gripping, whilst presenting theatre that embraces, grapples with, and (oddly) celebrates grief. This is not an easy thing to do in theatre – the obvious pitfall is simply awakening sympathy in spectators or in beating the same drum for a one-dimensional presentation of human experience.

Cion: A Requiem avoids this. Oliver Hauser’s set consists of a number of crosses, suspended from the ceiling and around the edge of the stage evoking the graveyard setting. The theme of death is unavoidable. But as the keening noises of a shuffling, bent-over man turn improbably into melody as the mourner becomes a singer, nothing is quite what it initially seems in this piece.

The ensemble presents a satisfying rendition of Maqoma’s signature choreography: stark, sharp, but hugely detailed. They stand in a menacing group before breaking into poses, then ceaseless movement centering on spinal fluidity, complex hand movements and a connection to the floor. The dancers remind me of zombies, hands outstretched as they rise from the ground; of a congregation witnessing an exorcism; of slaves on a plantation. There is an assured violence about the choreography, more obviously with the floor-slapping, tumultuous moments and the strange, torturous ear-pinching inflicted on the central character by a crazed priest character as the others look on in greedy judgment. But the violence lurks in every thread of this piece.

Maqoma dances a central character, inspired by the figure of Toloki, a professional mourner, from Zakes Mda’s novels Cion and Ways of Dying. Dressed in a blanket-like overcoat, leggings, and shoes, he is an oddly clown-like figure, vulnerable and ridiculous, at times milking the pathos. This is the genius of the piece: it places in a single moment the paradox of a heart-ripping response to the millions of lives lost, black lives in particular, to “greed, power and religion,” (from Maqoma’s program notes) and the humor, beauty, and awkwardness of everyday human life.

The music probably deserves its own review altogether. Astounding in all respects, the continuous score is performed by four singers, under the musical direction of composer Nhlanhla Mahlangu. They do things with their voices that seem impossible. Snakey, slithery clicks, sucks and breaths create a beat-boxing effect, unlike anything I have ever heard. There is rapping, harmonic choruses, sorrowful poetry, and dancing and body percussion. In a demonstration of louche confidence, they also take on Maurice Ravel’s famous Bolero. The sparse snare drum which underpins the very beginning of the piece returns as three singers hold heavy scorebooks, singing the overlaid and repeating melodies in somewhat ironic, though no less accomplished, operatic voices. The fourth singer unapologetically holds a megaphone, and with complete virtuosity, raps out the famous bolero rhythm using words.

Different sections of choreography seem to tell a mixture of personal stories of the Toloki character. At one point, he is held back from a woman, perhaps lover or mother, by a group of people who could be a ship or could be jailers, all wearing white gloves in a strange and angry form of a minstrel show. Later on, there is a pas-de-deux between Toloki and one of the female dancers, who speaks a text about slave mothers learning not to love their children, while evading the overbearing advances of Toloki amongst floods of giggles. It’s an effective and jarring piece of text, but this section sits oddly amongst the rest of the piece, perhaps because it feels like a revealing of an otherwise mysterious hand.

Mannie Manim’s lighting design in conjunction with the set provides a series of otherworldly settings; lit from below with red and orange tonalities, the backdrop gives the sudden feeling of a grisly tomb full of skulls and bones; later, it is a stony rock face, perhaps underground, running with water in Ntuthuko Mbuyazi’s intricate sound design, as the dancers smack the floor with cloth sacking.

At the end of the piece, crosses cover the stage, transporting us right into the graveyard which we have contemplated throughout this cathartic “lament” of a piece (as described by Maqoma in the program). The dancers return to the stage, now dressed outrageously with copious black netting covering their faces, topped with large black Stetsons. They wear tap shoes on their feet. Stalking in, they channel a camp Fosse at the same time as providing a deadly serious comment on the expendability of all the lives brutally ended. We wait for it, and it comes: fully deserving of the clichéd term coup de theatre, the group tap out the rhythm of the Bolero, getting faster and faster as they stamp it out, literally dancing on their graves.

Maqoma writes about the piece as a “catharsis” of “universal grief,” and that “it champions our ability to bend together to share the burden of grief”. In this, I find him hugely generous. The piece is no less angry for being generous, no less outraged for being inclusive, no less sorrowful for being open-armed. In the strength of its own paradox, I find that this piece works on me, continuing to “permeate the living who are plagued by deaths that are not their own.”

Review: Hard to be Soft, Oona Doherty

Review of Oona Doherty: ‘Hard to be Soft’, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Dance Umbrella, 11 October 2019

First published in The Theatre Times, 3 November 2019

My senses are all awakened. It begins in the darkness. A curl of smoke rises from a dimly lit bowl at the front of the stage. The smell of incense hits my nose. Three dark, hooded figures stand around the urn, hands clasped in front of them. Thin, sharp shafts of light gradually appear, a light sense of menace. The vastness of tall, arhythmical bars crossing the front of the stage makes me wonder what lies behind. Three figures warming themselves in the dark.

Then suddenly, my ears come to life. A figure dressed in white thumps loudly to the floor center stage. I hear an unrelenting, persistent song of three female voices intertwined. The rhythms of the Belfast accent awaken the figure on the floor. It’s Oona Doherty, in ‘Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise’, the first of the four parts that make up her work Hard to be Soft, at London’s Dance Umbrella Festival.

Doherty moves through an astonishing set of physicalities, her face and body taking on the characters of the speakers that are heard, muffled, alongside the music, in a ‘soundscape’ by David Holmes. First, a young man, fists thrust into the front of her tracksuit bottoms. Cocksure. An older one, shouting with a twisted leer on her face. She cuts between dizzyingly fluid movements of falling backward, melting, and losing definition and structure before bouncing directly into the next character.

I have the sense of a dream – or possibly nightmare – where the dreamer spools through memories, stories of laughter and violence. I can’t make out much of the words these voices are saying; for my English ears, the Belfast accent is thick, and heavy with political resonance. I wonder whether Doherty has deliberately chosen for me to feel not quite in the know. A Christ-like image recurs, accompanied by a sobbing woman’s voice; Doherty on tiptoes with arms outstretched.

In the dark, again we hear a suddenly clear voiceover: a woman describing how women like to get dressed up and look ‘fabulous’ to cope with the everyday shit of life, and ‘scumbag’ men. Get made up, look amazing, and it’s empowering for women, she says. We hear the swishing sound of sweatpants material as ten young women march on the stage, for ‘The Sugar Army’.

Dressed in sporty, bright clothes, and heavily made-up, they perform an unapologetic routine ironically resonant of dance videos, looking sometimes fierce, sometimes fiercely, disingenuously happy. The odd ballet-inspired moment enhances my feeling that I am witnessing layers of simulation. Are the women empowered, or controlled by the regimental behavior of their compatriots? Occasionally, an individual will break out of the tight group routine to wander, or wonder, before being angrily sanctioned or brought into line by her companions. At the end, they break out into laughing, giggling, and showing an almost childish response, as they walk off stage and leave us wondering whether the whole thing was a joke at our expense.

The third piece, ‘Meat Kaleidoscope’, is a duet between two large, topless men. It is, for me, the least convincing part of the piece, mostly because I am consistently distracted by a projection of close-up shots from the duet we are seeing, employing kaleidoscopic effects to abstract it. The two shuffle slowly, heavily, towards each other from the sides of the stage, accompanied by a backdrop of two men’s voices arguing – perhaps a father and son? Again, I can only make out a limited amount of the content of the language, although I strain to understand. On meeting each other, they hug, unexpectedly and uncomfortably; sure enough, the hug becomes a wrestling grip but a strangely tender one. The piece leaves me needing more: there is something being communicated about two men who can only interact with the language of violence, but I’m not sure what else there is to it.

At the end of the evening, we return to Oona Doherty alone on stage with the solo ‘Helium’. My fellow audience members tangibly recoil as bright lights hit our dark-adjusted eyes. Reprising ideas from ‘Lazarus and the Bird of Paradise’, Doherty portrays a character who has certainty about their movement, a swagger, a march to the side of the space, confident about what is next – only to forget, wonder, or lose track of their line. Here, the cage-like structure of the set (by Ciaran Bagnall) contains the character, leaving me wondering what is on the outside.

Doherty brings back some of the characters from ‘Lazarus’, often employing quite gestural, mime-like movements. She evokes an infant being encouraged to walk, a child told off for something they didn’t do, a woman who’s putting up with life and smoking a cigarette, as well as men full of borrowed confidence. The work ends with a long poem played on voiceover – I wonder if it’s Doherty herself speaking – with what could be a commentary on the work itself. The voice speaks of a ‘black box’ full of emotion, of ‘man, woman, beast, song’.

The work receives rapturous applause, with the performers apparently unexpectedly delighted with the response. I find myself edgy about it. I have been irritated by the feeling that ideas are presented but not developed, especially in the two pieces that are sandwiched by Doherty’s extraordinary solos. Some creative choices, such as the gigantic, overpowering set, indicate a scale of ideas from this choreographer perhaps too big to have been quite formed into a cohesive voice. But there is a voice, coming through loud and clear. I would happily watch Doherty’s own performance for longer, with her blend of silky fluidity that threatens at any turn to jolt into a punched-out, unapologetic statement. Is this the softness and hardness of the title?

Dance Audience Club: Evolution, 13 October

I’m delighted to be presenting a ‘Dance Audience Club’ session as part of the Oxford Dance Forum ‘Evolution’ event, celebrating a three year professional development programme through which I have received funding to pilot Dance Audience Club. I’m thrilled to present this session amidst a day full of an eclectic range of dance performances from Oxford artists, many of whom I have worked with as a dramaturg or in other ways.

A free event celebrating the work of local dance artists and recipients of the Arts Council England-funded Oxford Dance Forum Evolution awards. Offering a vibrant and eclectic mix of dance performances, dance films and documentaries, installations and discussions throughout the afternoon and evening, this one-time-only event is open to all!

Book tickets for each event you’d like to attend – all free, donations welcome.

https://oldfirestation.org.uk/whats-on/oxford-dance-forum-evolution-celebration/

Dance Scratch: 24 September

Oxford Dance Forum presents ‘Dance Scratch’ at the Old Fire Station: an opportunity for three dance artists to show work in progress and receive responses from the audience in discussion.

I will be facilitating the audience responses. It’s a great opportunity for audiences to see some very different pieces of work at an early stage and to have the chance to feed back their ideas and responses in answer to some specific questions prepared by the artists, with my help.

The artists also receive a follow-up meeting with me to discuss how they will continue with the development of the work, and how the audience responses might inform that development.

Book tickets here: https://oldfirestation.org.uk/whats-on/dance-scratch-sept-19/

Dance Audience Club: North Wall

I will be leading another Dance Audience Club at the North Wall Theatre in Oxford, before the performance of Company Chordelia’s The Chosen

  • Saturday 14 September, 6.30–7.30pm
  • Dance Studio, North Wall Theatre
  • Free tickets and discounted ticket to the performance

If you are curious about dance, but sometimes feel a bit stumped about how to process it or talk about it, then Dance Audience Club is for you!

A friendly, informal opportunity to give language to an art experience that can sometimes feel a bit difficult to pin down.

This pre-show discussion is an independent project led by Miranda Laurence, supported by Oxford Dance Forum. It’s free to take part, with discounted tickets to The Chosen. To book your place, email Amy Walters on waltersa@thenorthwall.com

Dance Audience Club: Oxford Playhouse

The first Dance Audience Club session will take place at Oxford Playhouse, before the performance of Clod Ensemble’s On the High Road,

  • Tuesday 21 May, 6-7pm
  • Lucy Room, Oxford Playhouse
  • FREE to ticket holders

You are invited to join the first Dance Audience Club, led by independent dance dramaturg Miranda Laurence. We will meet before the performance of Clod Ensemble’s ‘On the High Road’ to informally chat through the ways in which we might watch dance or other forms of non-narrative work. What might we look out for? What sort of things might we notice? What language could we use to sort through our reactions to the work?
If you are curious about watching dance, but sometimes feel a bit stumped about how to process it or talk about it, this is for you. It’s an informal, unthreatening invitation to give language to an art experience that can sometimes feel difficult to pin down.
This pre-show discussion is an independent project, supported by Oxford Playhouse, Clod Ensemble and Oxford Dance Forum.

https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/whats-on/all-shows/on-the-high-road/11927

Workshop: Moving Dramaturgy – 18 May 2019

Moving Dramaturgy: exploring dance dramaturgy with bodies and minds

A workshop led by Miranda Laurence (dance dramaturg) and Ruth Pethybridge (dramaturg, lecturer and independent dance practitioner)

Saturday 18 May, 11-4pm, Oxford

In this workshop, we will be exploring the practice of dance dramaturgy through dance improvisation, movement-based reflection, discussion, case studies, and independent thought.

As dance dramaturgs, we often find ourselves referring to our practices in spatial terms, in relation to our position and perspective for the choreographer and of the work. Combining our questions about the nature of dance dramaturgy, and an interest in exploring dramaturgy through movement, we will use spatial metaphors and discussions of positionality to guide a choreographic exploration of the relationship between dramaturg, dance maker, and dance work. Together, we will explore with our bodies and minds how choreographers and dramaturgs can work together in a relational practice that acknowledges different positions and perspectives. 

This workshop is for dance makers with an interest in initiating, or developing, a relationship with a dramaturg, and for dramaturgs interested in exploring your personal practice as relational to the maker and the work. It is fine not to have any previous knowledge or experience of dramaturgy, as we will be exploring its definitions through the workshop. Similarly, we welcome theatre dramaturgs and theatre makers without experience of working in dance.

Date: Saturday 18 May 2019 11.00am – 4.00pm
Venue: Dance Studio, Old Fire Station, George St, Oxford OX1 2AQ
Tickets: £15 (£10 for Oxford Dance Forum Members)
Book: email cthompson@oxford.gov.uk

This workshop is part of Oxford Dance Forum’s Evolution Professional Development Programme supported by Arts Council England & Oxford City Council

Reflections on ANON

An article originally published on The Red Line

Johanna Nuutinen and I set each other questions to reflect on the process of working together on ANON: The Act of Waiting, in 2018. Our collaboration was made possible through funding awarded by South East Dance, via the Collaborate programme supported by the Jerwood Foundation.

(Johanna Nuutinen writes:)

ANON premiered on 22.11.2018 in Helsinki at Teater Viirus. Our team consisted of 6 artists: visual designer Joonas Tikkanen, sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä, performers Jenna Broas and Oskari Nyyssölä, I as the choreographer and Miranda Laurence as the dramaturg (supported by a Collaborate award from South East Dance). Jarkko Lehmus offered his help when I was working on the physical themes and tasks in the very beginning of the process.

Miranda and I chose to open up the process by setting each other a set of questions.

J: What did you learn in this process?

M: Your choreographic thinking was very different from that of choreographers I have worked with in the past. You focused very strongly on the detail of movement and how this could bring about an emotional experience in the spectator. Especially after I was able to be in the studio in person, I learned a lot about how you were crafting a movement quality through minutiae, and how this created the tone of the piece beyond simply what it looked like.

I always learn so much when working together with artists; every session, rehearsal, conversation feeds my curiosity and inspires me. I’ve really enjoyed working cross-culturally on this project as well – I have learned about the dance making sector in Finland; your experiences in your performing career with the Finnish National Ballet also informed your process and your vision and taught me a lot about different ways of working and the expectations we have of dance work, and dance performers.

M: What new ideas did you want to explore for your own choreographic practice, in the making of ANON?

J: I wanted to use choreographic tools that activate the performers rather than only using my own body to form the pathway through the piece.

I also set a goal for the whole team to create a piece that would have its premiere in a stage setting with the audience surrounding the performance area, but that could also be modified to be performed in museum and gallery spaces. Where the stage production has the duration of 55 minutes, my question was, can this production work as a durational performance as a part of a contemporary art exhibition. By surrendering to the delay of the motion and expanding each movement section me and the rest of the creative team have become interested in exploring this work in a durational performance context as well.

J: What did you find challenging?

M: At times, it felt like you had such a clear vision of what you were trying to achieve and the way in which you would go about it, that I wasn’t sure what I was able to bring to that process! I was used to working with more stated uncertainty. Some of the issues you were dealing with, such as how to best enable the dancers to achieve your vision of movement quality, wasn’t necessarily something I felt best equipped to help you with, as I do not come from a background of dance technique training. So at times, I did wonder how I was helping in the process.

I was also always aware of my advantage as a native speaker of the language we were using to communicate with – your English is excellent, but at times I felt like it might have been a hindrance to you to have to think about all your concepts and communicate them in a second language so that I could understand what was going on in the process (also during the rehearsals where the normal mode was to work in Finnish).

J: How did you cope with the fact that most of the work was done via Skype?

M: We had Skype sessions over the first six months, after which point I came to Finland for four days of rehearsals in the studio. I hadn’t realised before then quite how much difference it would make to be there in person and watch the work, and be able to respond to it live. However, I think that we made the best use we could of the Skype sessions, as it gave you some space to talk about the processes away from the rehearsal room. The videos you sent me of the work in progress gave me an opportunity to watch the work differently than how I was able to in the rehearsal studio ‘live’, which took away some things, but I think added other advantages.

Our skype conversations after my visit to Finland felt more successful and I think that was partly because we were able to get to know each other better during my stay and just generally during the course of working together. I use Skype with other artists quite a bit, but it has normally been as part of an ongoing mix of meeting in person, and seeing work live in the studio.

M: What contribution did you anticipate that I might bring in the dramaturg role? (What were you curious about when thinking of working with me?)

J: I was looking for a challenge: communication that makes me question the content of the work from new angles. The questions a dramaturg presents force me to articulate my own ideas and thoughts more precisely. These conversations have been for the benefit of the work, for the benefit of the performers and ultimate for the benefit of the audience, as well as my own development as an artist.

M: Which parts of your process do you feel I engaged with most, and did this make a difference to the way you worked?

J: During the Skype sessions I feel the arc of the whole piece was something we were able to get deeper into. We discussed the causal connections within the work and how we want to affect the performer and through the performers the audience. What kind of different states of being do we want to take the audience through? How do we invite them to be a part of this journey? What kind of a state of being do we want to  leave them in?

I loved how you directed your questions also to the performers when you were in the studio with us. I enjoy working on a level where the performers’s physical capacity is so strong that we are able to work on a more delicate levels – to tune where they direct their inner focus and gaze and how they receive the other person in the space or the surfaces around them? What is the fantasy that the performer creates around themselves? The questions you directed to the performers encouraged them to awaken their inner voice. The dialogue made them aware that every thought they go through is visible and carries content.

M: How important was a consideration of audience in this work and in the process?

J: Very important. The work is created to be experienced. From the performers’s point of view and from the audience’s point of view. The audience became the community which gathered together to wait. To experience the time embodied by the performers.

Each of the timings, actions and qualities of the motions need to be questioned from at least two angles: how does this affect the performer and how does the performer’s experience affect the audience?

J: What was different compared to other projects you have been collaborating on?

M: As I mentioned before, your choreographic vision is very unlike anything I had previously worked with. I found it very inspiring to see how you wanted to work so closely and uncompromisingly with movement. The quality you wanted to achieve came from a mixture of the dancers internalising emotions and somatic experiences, together with tightly-controlled choreography. Your vision for the final work felt very strong from the beginning, particularly as the first decision about the piece was about the set (and how it would interact with the lighting design).

I was interested in the way you collaborated with your sound designer Tuuli Kyttälä. She was present during much of the rehearsal period, and was contributing quite a lot to the creative ideas overall. This is less usual in my experience for a UK production. From the little I know of dance creation in Finland, I think sound designers (and lighting designers) are often in a much more creative collaboration with dance makers, than is often the case in the UK.

I am used to working in the abstract, and often I pay attention to narrative structure, thinking about how a structure can affect the audience’s emotional response to the content. With ANON I realised that perhaps the main goal was to engender an emotional response from the audience that came from their experience of the movement, perhaps their kinaesthetic response to it, over and above any of the other elements of the work (although sound, set, lighting and structure were of course important too).

J: What did you find fascinating?

M: I think I probably answered this question already! I am inspired by your single-minded choreographic vision, the strong ethic you have about enabling and encouraging the performers to get into the right mindset for creating the movements and movement quality you want to see. I was fascinated by the way the piece was emerging as a kinaesthetic experience – I was not able to see the premiere in Helsinki this November, but I hope I will get a chance to see the work sometime in the future.

M: What would you ask a dramaturg to bring to your next process?

J: I desire to be challenged so I always welcome questions and constructive dialogue within the team I collaborate with and later on with the audience. I will for sure continue to seek funding and opportunities to bring a dramaturg into the next processes as well.

I enjoy if at some point of the process I can leave the performers in the studio with the dramaturg for one day and step aside myself. This action usually gives space to breath for the performers and it creates a situation where they can strengthen their ownership of the piece.   When I return to the studio the causal connections might have become more clear and the performers in collaboration with the dramaturg might have found content which I didn’t see earlier. I’m able to do this of course only if the dramaturg has been able to attend the process already from the very first rehearsals onwards.

I do hope dramaturgy will be strongly part of the development of the dance field in Finland now and in the future. South East Dance Collaborate Artist program has been an excellent sample by offering support also for the works of foreign artists who team up with dramaturges based in Britain. Together we are stronger.

Credits for ANON:

Choreographer: Johanna Nuutinen.

Performers: Jenna Broas, Oskari Nyyssölä

Light and visual concept design: Joonas Tikkanen

Sound design: Tuuli Kyttälä

Costume design: Erika Turunen

Dramaturg: Miranda Laurence