|Book cover design by Charles Meunier|
Phoenix Dance Theatre, Calyx, Quarry Hill, 8 Dec 2016
When I was in my last year at school I discovered that the University of St. Andrews ran an examination for those seeking scholarships, exhibitions and bursaries known as the "bursary comp". The examination took place in March over several days during which time the candidates were housed in one of the halls of residence. I entered the competition thinking it would be good experience for the Oxbridge exams which were due to take place later that year. To my great surprise (and even greater surprise of that of my teachers and parents) I was awarded a Harkness Scholarship of £100 a year which was a very generous sum in 1968. I fell in love with St Andrews during the week of the bursary comp and took up my award the following October rather than try Oxbridge in October which was probably the wisest thing I ever did.
The reason I mention all this is that candidates had to show a measure of proficiency in a modern language and I chose French. There was a literature paper and the syllabus covered late 19th century poets who are hardly ever read in this country, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine. One of the books I had to read was Les Fleurs du mal which contained poems written in a most beautiful metre but whose language made no sense to me whatsoever. Nearly 50 years later I have encountered Baudelaire again but in the much more agreeable context of a preview of a new dance piece by Sandrine Monin called Calyx which is inspired by Baudelaire.
The preview took place at 16:30 today to an invited audience in one of Phoenix Dance Theatre's studios at Quarry Hill in Leeds. The company's artistic director, Sharon Watson, introduced Sandrine and the composer of her score, Roberto Rusconi. She explained that Calyx would be Sandrine's first work to be performed on stage and that this was the first time that she had commissioned a work from one of her company's dancers. Each member of the audience was given a feedback form and a pencil upon which we were invited to write down our opinions on the choreography and the score.
Sharon stood aside and we saw 4 white boxes with soft canvas walls on stage. The recording started to play. One of the boxes began to move. Another showed the imprint of a hand. Then a foot appeared together with a leg rather like a sprouting shoot. Their owner appeared to be Sam Vaherlehto. Slowly the other dancers emerged, again like vegetation. They were Carmen Vazquez Marfil, Prentice Whitlow and Natalie Alleston. The dancers uncoiled and stretched about them reminding me briefly of Liam Scarlett's Frankenstein. They seemed to feel their way around their environment until they encountered each other. There was then a curious interaction between the two pairs of dancers which could have been love or indeed hostility. It was impossible to tell from the dancers' expressions but as it ended with the girls being stuffed into the boxes I assumed the latter.
The score contained echoes of the human voice and sounds from everyday life as well as conventional instruments. At first, I thought it was too complex and busy for the dance but, on reflection, I considered that the choreography is far from simple. The interaction between the dancers which I have just described and the question of whether the dance is an expression of love or hostility being an example.
After the performance, Sandrine and Roberto appeared to take questions. A member of the audience congratulated the dancers to a rumble of assent. Another asked Sandrine about costumes. She replied that they would be dressed androgynously. She explained that Baudelaire, the source of her inspiration, used the most beautiful language to discuss the most unpleasant matter in his verse. I tried to remember whether I had felt the same when I had to read Baudelaire in preparation for the bursary comp. My recollection was blank for I found Baudelaire very difficult to understand indeed. Translations didn't help. They were, if anything, even more impenetrable that the original French.
The dancers presented another extract from Sandrine's piece. My impression was that it was softer, more lyrical = perhaps a little more like Ashton's Monotones which had been set to the music of the French composer Erik Satie who was born just before Baudelaire died. I wondered whether Satie could have worked for Sandrine too but, in the end, I thought she was right to commission Roberto.
We were given a minute to fill in our forms which were collected by Melody Walker. As we left the studio Melody invited us to share some Christmas fare and mingle with the other guests. I met some interesting people, the dancers Vanessa Vince-Pang, and a new recruit from Cuba whom I only know as Carlos who spoke passionately about dance and graciously acknowledged my compliments for his illustrious compatriots in this country's ballet companies. I met Janet Smith of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, the director of CAST, the new executive director of Phoenix and one of the founders of the company who gave Sandrine the most useful critique of her work that could ever be available.
Even in a rehearsal studio Calyx was quite enthralling. In a theatre it will be breathtaking. The work will premiere as part of a mixed bill on 8 Feb at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and then go on tour to Durham, Oldham and Edinburgh. I am sure the other works will be great too but it would be worthwhile coming to the show simply to see Calyx.