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Claire’s Rural Dance Story – A trip to Oslo to see Panta Rei

With the help of an NRTF dance bursary Claire Ayres of Beaford Arts went on a trip to Oslo to visit Panta Rei and to see their new piece – below is her report. Ian Scott from Artsreach also travelled and his review of the show can be read by NRTF members on the discussions pages here.

Claire Ayres in Oslo.

One normal Wednesday morning in early November an email from Claire Smith at the Rural Touring Dance Initiative flew into my inbox, ‘Urgent – opportunity to see some dance in Norway!’. ‘Yes! I thought, how can I make this happen?!’ Thanks to a Go and See Bursary from NRTF, an agreement by my Director, Mark Wallace, at Beaford Arts to treat this opportunity as CPD, and a very willing husband to manage our three kids at home, one week later I was sat on a plane whisking my way to Oslo, Norway, to spend 3 days with the fantastic company Panta Rei Danseteater.

The trip was a chance to attend the premiere of their new production, Promise of Departure – to experience their work on home soil, in a rural setting. From the information and images I’d seen before I left England I thought it would be an edgy, urban, gritty, dynamic, powerful and physically demanding piece.

At Beaford Arts, we had programmed Panta Rei’s Behind the Mirror last year, and had just hosted I Wish Her Well, along with the delivery of an incredible day of workshops with primary school children, higher education college performing arts students and community dancing school adults.

I’d already witnessed the technical ability of dancer Johnny Autin in Behind the Mirror, and as an advanced dancer myself had already participated in a 2 hour workshop with him last year, which was intense. My body truly hurt everywhere the day after!

So, I was naturally excited to be seeing him dance, along with two other professionals, and to be experiencing the Panta Rei cutting edge contemporary choreography in this intriguing new show Promise of Departure.

The Promise of Departure premiere was staged in a small town, one and half hours drive from Oslo, in the beautiful rural setting of Stange. Snow was on the ground, the air temperature -4 degrees C, but it didn’t stop Norwegian people venturing out to experience and support home grown contemporary dance.

The event commenced with an outdoor flash mob of students (pictured below) from the TILT educational programme linked to the Promise of Departure performance. (TILT is a multi year education and performance project involving hundreds of young people across Norway building new and sustainable dance communities.)

Outside in the darkness, carefully lit by staged lighting, students danced amongst the snowflakes to catchy music as the audience started to arrive. A converted caravan was also placed outside, transposing images of people standing nearby to upside down images to be seen in the dark room inside. The concept was about identity.

The audience entered the village hall type building into the holding space outside the performance room and as they handed over their tickets a professional dancer broke out into impromptu dance – transfixing the gathering audience. This was quite superb.

Once inside the small scale room, the audience of 80, much like the size of our rural touring network in the UK, sat on portable raked bench sitting areas on opposite sides of the room. The performance floor was then filled with 20 dancing school student participants between 13 and 18 years of age that had all been involved in the Panta Rei TILT programme. This was the curtain raiser. We were treated to absolutely excellent work, tight, a massive blow of energy, and it set us, the audience, up with an air of great anticipation for the imminent professional show.

Promise of Departure was all about vulnerability, identity, personal regrets, breakdowns and ultimately finding a positive way through.

The performance was in two halves. No props just clean, beautiful vertical white pieces of cloth hung along two sides of the room, the sides not occupied by an audience (pictured below).

The first half, choreographed by Anne Ekenes and Pia Holden, was about 3 personal stories. One was about a boy realising his identity and coming out. Another focused on the regret of not spending more time with a dying grandparent, the other about not having the bravery to leave a girlfriend and exit a relationship. The piece was energetic with lifts and throws and was generally fast paced. It was connecting. There was the occasional spoken word by the dancers in Norwegian, also Swedish, I think, and sometimes English, so for me there were understandably a few missed moments. (This will be changed to all three dancers speaking in English if it tours in the UK.) The underlying theme was undoubtedly Just Keep Dancing. It is our life blood, and enables us to get through.

The first piece ended with the same invigorating music we’d heard at the start being played once more, and everyone was encouraged to just get up and dance – and they did! We could all feel the energy and emotion between us all.

The second half, choreographed by a guest, Rachel Erdos from the UK, was much darker in nature. It had a relevance to the first piece but took us on a different journey. Trails of powdery chalk like substance was sprinkled onto the dance space as the dancers entered. The concept was migration. A journey of a people, and connecting with the world right now. The pieces showed times of breakdown, of despair and relevance to the Syrian refugees and camps in France.

Appropriate songs featured in the writing. The common English nursery rhyme, Row row row your boat, was a key part of the show, along with another song spoken in another language about sailing away with the wind. (This would be translated to English for a UK tour.)

Promise of Departure was an impactful performance, with relevant and thought provoking content. The technical ability and choreographical qualities were extremely high. It was dynamic to watch and gritty in its themes. Everything about the performance worked and was captivating. How the dancers managed to run and dance on a surface of powdery white flour like substance was mind-blowing at times.

This show is ideal for our UK rural touring set up. It would travel easily, isn’t demanding from a get in point of view, and as a dance piece of 60mins in length works well and holds concentration. Ideally it would suit secondary school age children and above, I feel.

I think it does need to be played to an audience mainly comprising of dance appreciation members.

Perhaps it is not the first choice for a new community where a scheme is building a new dance audience from scratch. However, saying that, Panta Rei always delivers a first rate experience of contemporary dance, so if this was marketed correctly, it might work. Panta Rei informed me that they had heard secondary school kids and the elderly say that they felt a deep connection with the piece and loved it. I look forward to Beaford Arts hopefully being able to host a couple of performances of Promise of Departure in the future.

One suggestion that springs to mind, to make this event even more consuming, is that I think that maybe the audience could have done with an explanation first. To have been given some pointers to look out for to help with the story telling so that people could follow and appreciate the dance elements. One to think about.

While I was in Oslo, I managed to visit other places of interest in the world of dance!

National Dance House, Oslo – Here I met the officers who produce the annual listings for the Norwegian dance companies for the national programmes. They had seen the English villages of Chulmleigh and Swimbridge on Panta Rei’s UK tour list, but could now put a face to a place/organisation and there was definitely more understanding!

The Cultural House in Hamar – This is where the premiere after show party was held (and, yes, I did receive an invite!). The House invested in the Panta Rei TILT education programme and Promise of Departure project as the organisation is a firm believer in the outreach work of dance in the surrounding rural villages, including Stange where the performance was held.

My tour of Oslo also included other multipurpose venues and rock gig spaces. The final stop off before my homeward bound travel was the Opera House in Oslo (pictured above). A distinctive building in the heart of city. After a precarious walk up the icy exterior of the building to the even more ‘venture at your own risk’ slippery roof, there was a blinding opportunity I just had to take. With the backdrop of the city of Oslo and the mountainous views, I staged a classic balletic pose – an arabesque. Snap! The photograph was taken! (Back at home, the dance school that I belong to has created a Scenic Photo Album. This photo, I thought, would make it to the top of the pile!) A pretty sensational moment which would sum up my whole dance adventure in Scandinavia. Here it is…

In essence, my research trip to Norway not only gave me a chance to watch and review Promise of Departure and analyse its potential for UK touring, but enabled me to meet and to have broad and useful conversations with Anne Ekenes, Artistic Director, Pia Holden, CEO, and Annika Ostwald, International Producer, of Panta Rei. We also had time to discuss potential exchange projects that I am working up, involving residencies with higher education colleges in UK and Norway and a working partnership with Panta Rei…watch this space!

I am so very grateful to all of the Panta Rei Company for a truly special time. In particular Annika who kindly hosted me in her central Oslo flat, drove me around and gave me a personal tour of the sites. I was looked after completely. It was also a pleasure to spend time with Ian and Katharine from Artsreach who were also visiting at the time. I absolutely loved my research trip. It was invaluable to spend time with this company to understand its way of working in its country, to gain awareness of its status in Norway and understand its international connections, and to be a part of a very exquisite premiere on its home turf.

Hope I get a chance to go again! NRTF and the RTDI…THANK YOU!