Signal", "White Space", "Shot Flow", "Seen
You would hardly guess from his name that Henri Oguike comes from Wales, but he was born in the south of the principality to a Welsh mother and a Nigerian father, and although now based in London has kept up a connection with the land of his birth by accepting recently the post of artistic director of National Youth Dance Wales. His education in music, drama and dance was near home at Swansea College, after which he trained at London Contemporary Dance School, graduating as both dancer and choreographer with their performance group 4D in 1994. The decade since then was spent first as a founder member of the Richard Alston Dance Company, and since 1999 with his own company. His programme book lists already forty creations in eleven years, made for a variety of schools and companies in Britain and Portugal as well as his own dancers. There is also an impressive list of awards and nominations.
His latest programme, given on tour and at the distinguished Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, shows him developing the genres that have brought him to rapid fame. Previously we saw his work in London at the respected but more modest Place Theatre, and with a smaller group than the twelve dancers (including apprentices) he now leads. He is noted for his ambitious interest in music, played live on stage whenever possible. Typical is his "Front Line", inspired by Shostakovich's ninth quartet (2002), and now included as a compulsory set study in the dance syllabus of Britain's chief certificate of secondary education.
Sometimes, I think, he reaches further musically than he can grasp. I would cite his Purcell "Dido and Aeneas" from 2003, and in the new programme "Seen of Angels", made to extracts from Handel's "Messiah". Great music, but there is a general feeling (which I share) that this selection does not really hold together as an artistic or dramatic whole, and I would add some dissatisfaction about the recorded performance (made in Chicago under Solti), and the excessive volume at which it was played. That said, I must add that the choreography had some fine moments, notably for a group of women and (separately) a trio of men. And, above all, the finale for the entire company, splendid in the way it varied and progressed their ensembles across the full stage area. (Oguike first staged "Seen of Angels" for Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporaneo in Lisbon, 2000; it would be interesting to know how much he has changed in this year's premiere for his own company.)
The choreographer himself dances only one piece: "Shot Flow", to music by Pedro Carneiro—greatly enhanced when, as here, it is played live by the composer on a large electronically rigged xylophone, using two hammers in each hand. Perhaps it's only my imagination that I previously saw this danced as a solo? Anyway, it still starts that way, until Charlotte Eatock arrives some way through to join in. She maintains the exploratory movement style established by the slender, elegant Oguike and adds a hint of a warmer relationship. A fourth collaborator must be mentioned: Guy Hoare, lighting designer for the whole repertoire. In "Shot Flow" he leaves most of the stage dark, providing small areas of light to bring out the drama of movement to music by showing perhaps just an outline of half a body, or even just a hand.
The other two works are both recent and show Oguike's work for small groups at its most inventively compelling. "Second Signal", new this year, is set to the rhythms of Japanese Taiko drums, played by the three men of Taiko Meantime. Clearly they love both the sound and the strong gestures with which they produce it; what an excellent and unusual idea to let them play the middle section of the piece alone on stage without the dancers. This draws attention to how well Oguike has deployed his cast of five women and three men, using tough steps and important sequences of repeated patterns to match this aggressive music.
Seven of the dancers are worked just as hard in "White Space", created in 2004. Actually the space isn't exclusively white, since Guy Hoare projects on the backcloth coloured rectangles, in dark outlines, that recall the paintings of Mondriaan, except that they keep changing shape, size and prominence. Against these the cast, all in white tunics with shorts, skirts or tights, play out their lone patterns or relationships. The movement reflects the quick patterns of Scarlatti keyboard pieces, recorded by Scott Ross, harpsichord. The music insists on a neat, lively energy that takes ordinary walking, running or dance steps (jumps, turns, what you like) and reinvigorates them into a highly distinctive style: crisp, jolly and thoroughly captivating.
I wish I could single out the dancers for individual comment, but with so much striking invention it's difficult to take in every detail, so I'll just say that the entire cast is admirable. For my taste, Henri Oguike is one of our two best choreographers in Britain today (with Russell Maliphant) and his company has a fascinating repertoire. Now for its second five years ...
Photos by Chris Nash.
3, No. 7