Henri Oguike Dance Co, Wilde Theatre, Bracknell

By Jenny Gilbert

02 February 2003

All baby choreographers benefit from having a mentor, but grown-up choreographers must sooner or later slough them off. Thirty-one-year-old Henri Oguike, once a fine dancer in the Richard Alston company and now out on the road with his own outfit, might easily have been tagged as an Alston clone. His music-centred approach – making dance that relates closely to the moods and motifs of the score, and giving the music a living presence on stage whenever funds allow – already has him chasing the same audience as Alston. But on the evidence of his latest batch of pieces, distinctiveness is also part of the package. Here is dance that is stuffed with fresh ideas, bristling with personality. Clearly Oguike is nobody's product: his style is all his own.

Nonetheless it took courage to tackle Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. The American Mark Morris made a legendary dance version, whose revival with full chorus, orchestra and soloists at ENO is still fairly fresh in the memory. For Oguike, on his lower rung of the ladder, a carefully chosen recording must suffice for the moment (Maria Ewing's Dido, seductively voiced). But in fact, piped music robs remarkably little from the movement's emotional punch.

Relying only on Guy Hoare's clever lighting, Oguike's six dancers succeed in suggesting an entire world of antiquity – a place where queens and warriors are felled by love, where swains and maidens grieve for them, a place where even the weather is at the mercy of good and evil forces. All this is achieved without a hint of camp (unlike in Morris's version), which means that Sarah Storer's feisty, peroxide Queen of Carthage can storm through Dido's arias with eyes blazing, blood up, and strip her passions bare. She can flash her thighs as the Sorceress and not rouse a titter. And she can stand perfectly still through "When I am laid in earth" and draw snuffles from all over the auditorium.

Oguike's major skill is in sensing when to go full out, and when to hold back. Some of Purcell's choruses he barely choreographs at all, but simply arranges his characters as sculptures, frozen in exquisite baroque poses. The action, too, strikes a judicious balance between putting over a story, and exploring abstract ideas. I loved the wriggly, gossipy movement invented for Charlotte Eatock's Belinda, and the sheer speed of Nuno Campos's Mercury.

The most memorable touch of all is also the simplest. As Dido's attendants quietly visit her corpse, one of them gets down on all fours and nudges at her body with his head – a loving, grieving gesture such as a faithful dog might make. Oguike wisely lets the music do the rest.

Less restraint was required in the creation of last year's hit Front Line, set to the furiously rhythmic ninth string quartet of Shostakovich (performed live on stage by the excellent Pavao Quartet). Here the chief fascination lies in seeing which musical details Oguike bids to translate directly, and which to counterpoint. Many would be cowed by such complexity – not Oguike. He adds his own percussive element as bare feet slap the floor, or, more chillingly, as dancers' entire bodies slam against it in a kind of toxic collapse.

The title suggests an exercise of bodily risk, and Oguike doesn't flinch from embracing the private anguish embodied by the score, nor the violent changes of mood as it oscillates between exuberance and a kind of listless Weltschmerz. And in case all this sounds too much like hard work, the choreographer shows he knows how to have fun, too. The second premiere of the programme, Finale, is pure sunshine, the entire company strolling and gambolling to the Latin-tinged music by Rene Aubry. It made me itch to join in – oh, to be able to cut a dash like that on some holiday dancefloor.


- 2003 Independent Newspapers

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