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Founding Fathers, Visionary Vignettes

Dance asks much of its spectators: there is a need for the intellectual side to work in tandem with the visceral. Which is why Yorke Dance Project's glorious film Dance Revolutionaries is a triumph from top to bottom—it's a feast for the senses. Filmed in various locations during the pandemic, there is as much to sate the casual dance fan as an aficionado. Director David Stewart has created a multifaceted work.


 Dance Revolutionaries, a film by David Stewart, produced by Yorke Dance Project



Lorna Irvine

Dispensing with a linear narrative structure, the first part of the film draws from Robert Cohan's “Portraits.” British-American visionary Cohan, who trained with legendary choreographer Martha Graham, was a true pioneer of contemporary dance. He “loosened” some of ballet's more restrictive movement vocabulary. There are gestures of fragility and vulnerability within these five separate pieces. The micro is given as much attention as the macro: arms flail, heads bow shortening  the frame, there's almost a sense of dissociation at times. From gorgeous, meditative vignettes on the beach, to more physically demanding work in empty rooms, the emphasis is on the dancers’ gorgeous framing and somatic elasticity.

This is most apparent in dancer Dane Hurst's moody segment, where he rolls, kicks and judders against a rough, graffiti sprayed backdrop as though he were a machine, experiencing jolts of electricity. Or witness Jonathan Goddard, performing almost naked, leaning in to sculptural poses, Adonis statue made flesh with a jerky intensity. This is the power of Cohan—his choreography starts one way, but bends in another, bending capriciously  to his will. Romany Pajdak has pendulum swinging legs: alone in an empty theatre, she moves in short fragmentary steps, leaving vapour trails in the auditorium.

It's testament to the skills of the directors of photography—Paul Francis Jenkins and Christopher Titus King—that there's a painterly quality to the entire film. Where, say, Wim Wenders’ Pina sought to recalibrate location choices by placing the ensemble in unfamiliar contexts, the dancers are exactly where they need to be here. This means they respond well to their environment, as opposed to pushing outwards against it. That is to say, the location isn't so jarring here. It's all about placing Cohan's dance front and centre.

The second part of the film is comprised of Dunfermline-born Kenneth MacMillan's take on Shakespeare's “Hamlet,” “Sea Of Troubles.” It's suffused with Macmillan 's typically iconoclastic approach to classical dance—his impetus was always focused on morals and psychology, on what motivated a dance storyline.  So there's a conscious rejection of the pomp and ceremony associated with the royal court , and a zooming in on the sexual jealousy, madness and patriarchal greed at the heart of Shakespeare's play.

The women at the heart of “Hamlet” become pawns in MacMillan's hands. No longer simply Gertrude and Ophelia, but in the words of Ophelia herself: “like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh,” these ladies are othered, rendered as ciphers. One is rendered as an anonymous, recalcitrant bride with her face entirely covered by her veil: limp as though comatose, she lies in the arms of two male dancers; the other is grabbed by her head and swung, again, by a male dancer. It's such wanton acts of brutality that really reinforces the thrust of central themes of misogyny and the desire of attaining power by any means. Hamlet is an unreliable character, and this choreography casts a ghostly, Gothic pallor over the idyllic setting of Hatfield House, the beautiful Jacobean building in Hertfordshire.

Such violence is often played out by Kenneth MacMillan. His dance legacy is unsettling, a disturbing riff on the frothy preconceptions of ballet as fairy tales and family-friendly fare. Both Cohan and Macmillan took ballet's tired tropes, and spanked them. Not for either choreographer, a traditional leitmotif or happy conclusion—both founding fathers of contemporary dance looked sideways, often bringing controversy or shock. By today's standards, though, it's more palatable. As Dance Revolutionaries gently reminds us- through producer/ YDP Artistic Director Yolande Yorke-Edgell's wonderful ensemble—Cohan and MacMillan were simply ahead of their time. This is a drop of the dark stuff: potent, strong and intoxicating.

In over 80 UK cinemas from June 26th. For more information head to the website:

Lorna Irvine

Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.


Fran Pullman

You remark on the appropriateness of the locations in the Cohan pieces. It could not be otherwise, given Yolande Yorke-Edgell’s devotion to Sir Robert, his work and legacy. He revealed that when he choreographed any piece, he visualised in detail the setting it was placed in.


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