Sunday Telegraph - February 2, 2003

High time for the big stage

Louise Levene
Henri Oguike Dance Company

Two world premieres this week: both in Bracknell. On Wednesday evening the Wilde Theatre (geddit?) was playing host to the Henri Oguike Dance Company.

Henri Oguike is a man of some importance. He began his dancing life at London Contemporary Dance School and was a founding member of Richard Alston's company where he stayed for four years. The 31-year-old choreographer shares Alston's strong musical sensibility but adds to that a lively sense of theatre. The current touring programme is very cleverly balanced and packed with drama and variety.

Wednesday evening began with a bang with last year's Front Line, danced to Shostakovich's String Quartet No 9, which was played live on stage by the Pavâo Quartet. It is a seriously good piece, danced at speed and packed with angry, percussive footwork that embodies the virtuosic frenzy of the violins.

Oguike doesn't patronise his dancers by tailoring his choreography to their strengths and weaknesses; instead he insists that they raise their game to the level he demands. Nuno Campos and Charlotte Eatock meet this challenge with positively carnivorous relish.

A lot of contemporary choreography cries out to sit in your lap. Without the sweat and spit of the ringside it can seem cold, dry and self-absorbed. Not so Oguike's work While it is great to see his dancers in the intimate surroundings of the Wilde, Oguike is more than ready for a bigger stage. So are the dancers, who power through the choreography with a pleasing arrogance.

The evening's first premiere was Dido and Aeneas, danced to extracts from Purcell's 1680s opera. The simple, tragic story is probably not on the National Curriculum but Nahum Tate's libretto will have kept any Virgil virgins up to speed.

It is a handsome, well-crafted piece. Oguike deploys his dancers with great style and confidence and frequent shifts of scale and pace. The dual role of Dido and sorceress was danced by Sarah Storer, her faithful Belinda was vividly portrayed by the foxy and fleet-footed Charlotte Eatock, Aeneas by Nuno Silva and Mercury (the sorceress in disguise) by Nuno Campos (the odds on two dancers in a company of six sharing the name Nuno must be at least 73 million to one).

Dido and Aeneas avoids most of the heavily-powdered, bow-and-scrape clicheés that baroque music often has to endure, but it lacks the power of the Mark Morris Dido which is conceived on a far grander, more heroic scale. I daresay Oguike's version could be expanded to provide a bigger, more lavish production but I'm not convinced that it really deserves it. Although this bold flirtation with narrative shows us another facet of Oguike's talent and stagecraft there is something oddly oldfashioned about the enterprise, which is reminiscent of Kim Brandstrup's earliest story pieces.

Dancing along to intelligible lyrics is part of the problem. The dancers either appear to be "doing the actions" in a mad, Pan's Peoplish way or they stand there and emote while the libretto fills us in. The push-me-pull-you pas de deux to Purcell's "I'll stay!"/ "Away!" duet was almost more comic than tragic, while the drooping figures standing vigil over Dido's corpse were just hanging about while the music did all the work. The story didn't end so much as peter out.

Oguike has not yet given up performing. Fps (Frames per second) is a short, introspective solo danced to Bill Evans's Peace Piece. He lets his long, elegant limbs paddle in a square pool of light centre stage but he spends much of his time dancing in the dark - rather a waste of such an appealing stage presence. Bracknell's second premiere was Finale, a suitably upbeat number for the whole company danced to a selection of jolly, retsina-flavoured tunes by the French musician René Aubry, a protégé of the American choreographer Carolyn Carlson. Aubry is fond of insistent, danceable riffs and is also a keen bazouki player so that the overall effect is of a sort of Greek Penguin Café. Oguike's dancers frisked with infectious abandon, the steps seeming to bounce spontaneously from bodies that glowed with vitality in Guy Hoare's sunny yellow light.

© - Telegraph Group Ltd 2003

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