Henri Oguike founded his company in 1999, after several years as a prominent member of the Richard Alston Dance Company. Though Alston’s influence is readily visible in his work, which is inspired above all by music, both contemporary and classical, Oguike nevertheless quickly established himself as a distinctive choreographic voice, picking up a Jerwood Choreography Award in 1999, and a Time Out Award for most outstanding new company in 2001. The company’s busy spring 2003 tour encompassed five pieces, including two highly contrasting premieres, Dido & Aeneas and Finale. Curiously, it was these new works that seemed to miss the mark: one too ambitious, the other not enough.
Set to René Aubry’s pleasant score, Finale is an upbeat celebration of folksy high spirits. The dancers weave in sunny patterns and skim through flirtatious partnerings, their bouncy skipping games laced with a dash of seductiveness, a little Latin spirit swivelling through their hips. Though carefully composed, the effect is playfully carefree, like whistling: a kind of zip-a-dee-doo-da made flesh. Finale is easy on the eye, the ear – and the mind. It fulfils its aims well, but Oguike is certainly capable of more.
the effect is carefree, like whistling: a kind of zip-a-dee-doo-da made flesh
Dido & Aeneas, though, is as yet beyond his reach, weighed down by Purcell’s well-known score and by the memory of Mark Morris’s own magisterial version. Oguike is well aware of the potential pitfalls: several times he lets the music speak on its own, the dancers arrayed in statuesque friezes; and he wisely pares down the plot, making this the story of Dido’s loss. Still, the dance doesn’t quite establish a life of its own, propelled by the libretto and relying too much on a narrative that remains tantalisingly obscured. Sarah Storer’s white-blonde Dido contrasts well with Nuno Silva’s tall, remote Aeneas, but it is Nuno Campos and Charlotte Eatock in supporting roles who are most interesting to watch. The most effective moment is right at the end, when – tellingly – the plot has already run its course. To Purcell’s famous Lament, Storer lies prone in a pool of light while Campos, like a faithful, bewildered dog, tenderly nudges her lifeless body with his head. The other most striking aspect of this production is Guy Hoare’s impressive lighting, pencil-thin stripes on the darkened stage dramatically suggesting the crossed paths, forced separations and narrow destinies of the players.
Hoare is a regular collaborator with Oguike, and has contributed effective lighting designs for the other pieces on this tour, none more central than in the lovely, impressionistic f.p.s. (frames per second) from 2002. Now reworked to the Kronos Quartet recording of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, this short solo is in fact more like a duet, with dance and light as the partners. The stage is bathed by four squares of light, alternately fading and glowing to the hypnotic swell of the music. If the lighting echoes the cycling two-chord thrum of the musical bass, the dancing is counterpart to the mercurial violin cadenzas that soar above it. Oguike hovers like a dragonfly about the edges of the light, his flurries of motion punctuated by abrupt stillnesses. The movement itself is linked to the four-square geometry of the lighting, but transformed into something much more organic and alive – a lambent tracery of lines, planes and diagonals that flickers densely through Oguike’s body.
the sensuality and emotion come from a physical rather than dramatic source: the urgency of a rhythm, the turn of an ankle, the haughty kick of a leg, an instep trailing a caress against a calf
Several years ago Astor Piazzolla’s nuevo tango music was so widely used for dance that it became something of cliché. Happily, Melancholy Thoughts (2001), to Piazzolla’s Histoire du tango, displays a refreshing choreographic intelligence, for Oguike is clearly interested in what he can do with the tango’s steps and manoeuvres rather than just letting their ultry-sultry erotic charge carry the show. As with the tango, most of the detail in Melancholy Thoughts is in the lower legs. While their arms either shoot into rigid poses or remain held stiffly to their flanks, the dancers’ feet brush, slap or sink into the floor in nuanced, finely timed steps. There is, of course, an edgy undercurrent of ambiguous eroticism, for example when Silva stands like an aloof mannequin as the women kiss him in turn. But he dances with another man, Campos, in an elegantly choreographed duet of advance and retreat, parry and thrust. Here, as throughout, the frisson of sensuality and pressure of unstated emotion come from a physical rather than a dramatic source: from the urgency of a rhythm or the turn of an ankle, from the high, haughty kick of a leg or an instep trailing a fleeting caress against a calf. The group patterns entwine and interlock, much like the dancers’ legs, and the overall impression is not of passions either restrained or unbridled, but more reticent and thoughtful: supple sensuality, careful craftsmanship.
Melancholy Thoughts and f.p.s. are well-made works, but Front Line (2002) is in a class of its own, the measure of what Oguike can achieve. It is set to Shostakovich’s Ninth String Quartet (played live on stage by the Pavão Quartet), and part of its pleasure lies simply in watching how the musical phrasing and sometimes fugal composition are fleshed into physical form. But the dance is far more than mere visualisation, generating a dark, bitter ambience all its own. In Elizabeth Baker’s severe black costumes, the six performers pound out sparse rhythmic patterns, bare feet spiking downwards, torsos held tensely or doubled over in short, sharp spasms. In the second movement, the harshly plucked strings of the instruments drive the dynamics of an abrasively discordant duet; the third propels the dancers into stark, pulsing canons, spins and falls puncturing their aggressive, stamping strides. Throughout, the stage is raked by corridors of light, the performers constrained by or breaking away from their menacing presence. In the coda, the lights illuminate the juddering hands of five dancers as the sixth, Nuno Silva, falls and claws his way across the front line. Oguike’s best work to date, Front Line is powerfully suggestive and consummately orchestrated, the dancers seemingly forced into life by the astringent, unforgiving sounds of Shostakovich’s score.