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Dancing Out Loud

Come for the choreographers, stay for the dancers. A collaboration between Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts, Dancing Nation presents a selection of new and restaged works from emerging and established artists across the UK over 3 hour-long episodes. Most of the pre-recorded performances were filmed on grand stages across the UK (including the Sadler’s Wells main stage), but some pop up in the foyer or, in the case of Oona Doherty’s seminal work Hope Hunt & The Ascension into Lazarus, explode onto the streets of Belfast.

Oona Doherty's Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus for Dancing Nation, 2021

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There’s a lot to pick from—and it’s certainly too much to watch in one go, as I foolishly did—but it’s the hip-hop and ballet companies that stand out. One year in, we might feel done with works directly exploring contamination or loneliness; but not only do the works that directly confront the present feel the strongest, it’s also hard to not read older works through this new, Covid-era lens.

Take Boy Blue’s 2017 Olivier-Award nominated Blak Whyte Gray, for instance. Tied up in white straightjackets, the dancers move in an automated and precise yet frustrated manner. They struggle not only to express themselves, but to simply be. They snap and break out of tightly honed articulations to convulse, reach, and grimace. Though in-sync, they are ultimately isolated, delivering a new poignancy in light of 2020. Their sharp, isolated movements flourish in the close up and bounce tautly off the square confines of the screen.

Matsena Productions’ Shades of Blue is a direct response to both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Matsena Productions use the mechanical and bare apparatus of the main stage to box in, crush, or platform the performers. The work and the dancers move at breakneck speed through images of contagion, community, oppression, and protest, a pace that feels apposite to a year of brutal shifts in expectations, submerged in a relentless global news cycle.

A 15-minute excerpt of States of Mind, Kenneth Tindall’s new work for Northern Ballet, crafts a more impressionistic response to lockdown. A heavy-handed voiceover intones over the dancers, and, indeed, the stark lighting and crisp costuming imply a more sombre dance than what appears. Tindall rarely clutters the space, even when it is filled with synchronised pas de deux, and the dancers leap across the stage beautifully lithe and unencumbered.

Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Lazuli Sky (Excerpt) by Will Tuckett for Dancing Nation

Lazuli Sky (excerpt) from Will Tuckett, performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet, is a more ostensibly hopeful portrait—though balanced, as Tuckett explains in his introduction, is set to by music from John Adams that has an unnerving quality to it. The company delicately flickers across the spiralling blue and green backdrop, arcing in graceful counterpoints. Some of the more ‘pedestrian’ movement (such as a particularly sudden run onto the stage) is jarring in this otherwise mesmeric piece.

Moving away from ensemble pieces, Akram Khan & Natalia Osipova perform Mud of Sorrow: Touch. With compelling, almost sensuous proximity, they weave around each other until Khan is suddenly left alone in the dark. Has it been a dream? Something beeps—is he in hospital? What is he recovering from? In Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow for English National Ballet, performed by Emily Suzuki and Victor Prigent, untraversable distances feel painfully close. There is a real beauty and sensitivity in the subtle lifts and quick changes between the performers, hands always softly finding each other without hesitation. Yet in amongst this support is pain, an attempt to reach someone who so often pushes away.

Other pieces are placed off stage, to mixed results. Humanhood respond in Orbis and Sphera to the dark and light sides of the moon within a black or white circled floor in the middle of the foyer. While their movements are fluid and at ease with one another, the bordered floor doesn’t quite distract from the visual noise of the auditorium bar or the red buses driving past, making the movement feel somewhat lost. I would have happily spent more time with Breakin’ Convention’s Window Shopping, a too-brief curation of acts leading from the windows to the upstairs bar.

Breakin Convention's Window Shopping for Dancing Nation

Other big names include Candoco Dance Company with Face In by Yasmeen Godder—a loud piece that struggles from being made 2-dimensional—and Shobana Jeyasingh Dance’s prescient Contagion, emphatically danced by its all-female cast. New Adventures’ Spitfire—an advertisement divertissement reliably delivers intellectual cheekiness in its exploration of male underwear models, while the performers in the striking 15-minute excerpt of Blkdog from Far From the Norm impressively scuttle across the stage and sync up to the score with punishing precision.

The series fittingly ends with Marion Motin’s Rouge for Rambert. Dressed in shorts and crop tops, the athletic Rambert dancers strut and groove to live instrumentation from Micka Luna. The work has a certain flatness to it—the dancers predominantly orientated to one direction—yet while you feel the dancers might be ‘too cool’ for you, they offer a means to escape: imagining oneself in a densely packed room once again, sweating, feeling, moving.

Róisín O'Brien


Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.

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