Henry Oguike Company, South Hill Park, Bracknell
Sunday 05 March 2006
While it might appear that the best contemporary dance all happens in London, it really isn't so. These days smart British choreographers are discovering the benefits - and not just the grant-chasing necessity - of trugging their work round the country, finding that more intimate venues are often more accommodating.
I first saw Henri Oguike's Second Signal - a piece set to live Japanese Taiko drumming - in the gaping space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and yes, it was impressive. But seeing it up close the other day in the cosier setting of a Berkshire arts centre was something else. The thundering beats of the three onstage drummers punched my rib cage with such force that I feared, momentarily, for cardiac cases in the house. I caught every flicker of detail in the dancers' response as they quivered like reverberating drum skins. For a riveting 20 minutes, I became less a spectator than a seismometer, registering the force of a physical phenomenon as powerful as theatre-dance gets.
Oguike - half-Nigerian, half-Welsh - has only been making dance professionally for five or six years but already he's proved himself the most versatile choreographer on the circuit. What's more, while there's never any doubting his seriousness, he never forgets that his audience wants to have a good time. Typical of this generosity of spirit is the new Tiger Dancing, inspired by Blake's "Tyger" poem and set to a string-orchestra commission by Steve Martland, buoyant and ambitious in scale.
The eight dancers are rigged out in tigerish slashes and stripes, but it's other creatures of the forest - rather less fearful in symmetry - who supply the movement imagery: a waggly-shouldered strut, an antelope leap, a crocodile snap, a weird, upended balance of a wading bird peering at us past its leg. Yet what's it's not is a bunch of people pretending to be animals. Motifs are fully digested so that what remains is principally a sense of the suddennesses and stillnesses of feral behaviour, cutting across the busy thrum of the music's texture. For once, though, I felt the score outran Oguike's stock of ideas.
It's always impressive when a choreographer finds the time and energy to dance in his own shows, but the purpose is also practical: a solo allows the rest of the company to catch their breath. Whatever, Oguike's unusual combination of manly build and feline delicacy is always a pleasure to watch, though in Expression Lines - an evocation of the Sahara with music by Ali Farka Toure - he wilfully hides his face in shadow. Guy Hoare's lighting, from two moveable low lamps, mimics the harsh contrasts of equatorial sand and sky, while Oguike becomes a conduit for Toure's buzzing, mozarabic blues guitar.
As is his wont, Oguike signs off with a chuckle and a tip of the hat, this time to a concerto by Vivaldi. Packed with gags (dancers passing through an imagined airport security scanner in various daffy ways), he finds hilarity in the baroque ritornello where others wouldn't dare. I'm not sure Bracknell picked up the tongue-in-cheek profanity of the lugubrious pieta duet for two boys as Christ and Mary Magdalene. But it was impossible to miss the uplift of the anarchic finale. Go Vivaldi. Go Oguike.
Gardner Centre, Brighton (01273 685861) Tue; Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon (01874 611622) Thur; touring
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