Dance in Wales

A new Cardiff event is being launched this November: the Cardiff Dance Festival. Funded by the Arts Council of Wales and Cardiff Council, it is the brainchild of Chris Ricketts (formerly director of Sherman Cymru) and is intended to be a regular biennial event. Various performances are scheduled to take place at Chapter, Canton, and the Dance House and Weston Studio in the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) between November 10th and 22nd.

This is good enough reason for me to write about dance, a subject I’ve never probed on this blog. Admittedly, me writing about dance is the equivalent of, say, Simon Cowell holding forth on avant-garde jazz polyphony, and granted, I’ve got all the sense of rhythm of an embarrassing-dad-at-a-wedding tapping a gouty toe to Let’s Twist Again, but don’t click away just yet – I’ll try to make the words dance.

Dance has the highest level of participation of all the performance arts, and the dance tradition in Wales goes back into the mists of time, but it has long been the poor relation in comparison to other art forms, receiving minimal funding and attention. This is gradually changing. The coming of the National Assembly has, as in so many areas of Welsh life, meant that problems can at last be examined and remedies sought. The Assembly’s 2006 Review of Dance in Wales recommended that Sherman Cymru become Wales’ specialised dance showcase, an ambition hindered by the austere pittance Wales is allocated by London. However, a dance infrastructure is slowly developing, centred at the Dance House in the WMC, and the Cardiff Dance Festival can be viewed as another step in that process. To put these developments in context, a little history would not go amiss.

Dance originated as non-verbal communication, so pre-dates literacy and recorded history itself. Like many animals, from bees to parrots, elephants to dolphins, humans have always utilised body movement to send messages, express feelings or simply because they can. Over the millennia, ceremony, courtship, ritual, display and pastime, tailored to whatever environment prevailed, slowly embedded, refined, defined and codified the concept of dance under the guiding influence of music, its over-arching, under-pinning and ever-present companion.

Across the world each society developed its own dance culture. In Europe dance was established as a social activity and a form of entertainment by the middle ages but, as a result of the hierarchies that grew from conquest, land ownership and the primacy of money, it was splitting along class lines by the 16th century. At first it was a binary division: the stately, formal, rational dances of the royal courts and the aristocracy and the wilder, more improvised folk dances of the ordinary people. From this point dance splintered into today’s multi-faceted kaleidoscope. At the posh end of the spectrum ballet held sway as a pinnacle of high culture until 20th century modernism threw away the rule book and contemporary dance, with all its variations and yet to be explored potential, was born. While at the populist end, going hand in hand with the development of a music industry, a host of differing dances emerged, dependent on generation, geography, prevailing commercial factors and individualised identity, from ballroom to jazz, dancehall, breakdance, disco and hip-hop, each absorbing global influences and spinning off into sub-genres seemingly ad infinitum.

In Wales the ancient folk dancing traditions were largely intact until suffering grievously during the Industrial Revolution and the accompanying rise of Nonconformism in the 18th and 19th  centuries. Dance had been a rich and vigorous culture across the country, particularly in Glamorgan where people from surrounding districts would regularly gather for the Mabsant (dancing, singing and music related to the cycles of the year) and the Taplasau Haf (summer nights of drinking and dancing around the twmpath or mound on the village green). But the puritans deplored the unbridled abandon and set about crushing the old ways to turn Wales into the hard-working, ‘respectable’, sober, commercial society required by capitalism. By the middle of the 18th century the campaigning of the Methodists was taking its toll; in 1741 Charles Wesley (1707-1788) intervened at the famed week-long revels on Gwaun Treoda at Whitchurch, railing against the “abominable idolatries.” Dance and its accompanying instruments the harp and the fiddle were visible and audible phenomena and therefore easy targets for the fierce antagonism of the bible-bashers. By 1802 harpist Edward Jones (1752-1824) was bitterly lamenting: “Wales, formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the world, has now become one of the dullest.”

But folk dance tenaciously clung on in private houses through the 19th century while the chapels ruled the roost. The tide slowly turned; religion went into steep decline and the revival of Welsh national consciousness began. The establishment of the Urdd youth movement in 1922 was critical to a cultural reawakening that included the rediscovery of Welsh dance. The Welsh Folk Dance Society was formed in 1949 and began to resurrect the old dances as well as create many new ones. In 1968 Cwmni Dawns Werin Caerdydd was formed in the capital (today they are one of over 25 adult teams across Wales) and they reintroduced traditions like Plygain, the Mari Lwyd, Gŵyl Ifan and the Twmpath barn dance (the mound where the musicians played has now come to mean the event itself). Dances take place at eisteddfodau, schools, community halls and in the grounds of Sain Ffagan National History Museum, which is also home to the Welsh folk dance library and archives.

As regards contemporary dance, Wales was late on the scene but is making up for lost time. A key breakthrough was the founding in 1976 by the newly-opened Sherman Theatre of the Cardiff Community Dance Project. It was renamed Rubicon in 1983 and moved to the defunct 1908 St Lawrence’s Mission building in Nora Street, Adamsdown (with its original entrance in Ruby Street it was an Anglican outreach of nearby St German’s). Rubicon’s community dance approach regards dance as a tool to bring people together on equal terms, enabling self-expression and exploration and helping them make sense of their lives. It now supports a network of community dance organisations across Wales, holding classes for everyone from toddlers to pensioners, in all styles from tap to ballet. There is a particular emphasis on young people; wonders are worked diverting wayward Adamsdown boys away from smashing wing-mirrors and uprooting trees to tripping the light fantastic.

The next significant step was the founding in 1983 by Scot Roy Campbell-Moore and his wife Ann Sholem of Diversions Dance Company. It had a nomadic existence for years, performing mainly in St David’s Hall, until the completion of the WMC in 2004 gave it a permanent home at the Dance House, a world-class facility which includes the Blue Room production studio and performance area and the Man Gwyn rehearsal studio. Diversions became the National Dance Company of Wales (NDCW) in 2009, confirming its status in Wales and inserting another essential piece in the ever-growing jigsaw of Welsh national institutions. NDCW is today recognized as one of Europe’s most adventurous national dance companies for its policy of commissioning work from unestablished choreographers. Collaborations with guest choreographers have already conjured special moments at the Dance House; none more than in the crazy Lunatic in 2009 by Nigel Charnock from Abergele, co-founder of London’s leading contemporary dance company DV8 in 1986 after training in Cardiff. At the core of NDCW’s work is education and community involvement at the Dance House hub, aiming to nurture future Welsh dance talent and one day, it is hoped, rectify the current wince-inducing absence of any Welsh-born dancers in the company.

Wales is already producing extraordinary contemporary dance performers, none more important than Marc Rees, a radical innovator, prolific creator and flamboyant performer in demand across Europe for his intense, autobiographical and profound works. Saturated in the Welsh concept of ‘Y Milltir Sgwar’, the intimate ‘square mile’ of one’s childhood, Rees has travelled widely and now lives in Cardiff but his family home near Pontardawe is a continuous influence. His back catalogue of work has given Wales a body of contemporary ‘performance installations’ to cherish.  Some of the most special include Willows III – waiting for take off, inspired by the story of the airship adventures of Cardiffian Ernest Willows (1886-1926); RevolUn, exploring the impact of the notorious nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates (1934-2003) and Oliver Reed (1938-1999) in Women in Love, the 1969 film by Ken Russell (1927-2011) of the D.H.Lawrence (1885-1930) novel, through sinuous male body parts interacting in a set evoking the kitsch 1970s-style lounge of Rees’s parents; Caligula Disco, examining a gay man’s struggle to form identity in an incongruent 1970s Wales of macho rugby heroes, disco music and pink bathroom suites; and Gloria Days, the story of the lavish life and bankrupted downfall of ‘The Dancing Marquis’, Henry Paget, the 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875-1905). Rees set up his own company R.I.P.E in 1998 and launched the venture with another classic, Fist, based on the true story of a chance encounter between writer Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) and painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in a pub down the docks in 1960s Cardiff. He has now formed a performance collective called mes:a, based at Chapter, with two other extraordinary Welsh performers, Eddie Ladd and Sean Tuan John.

Important too has been Earthfall, based at Chapter since being formed in 1989 by Jessica Cohen and Jim Ennis. The company have been dance theatre pioneers forging radical choreography, music and film into issue-based, physical productions. Their 2006 triumph At Swim, Two Boys, inspired by Jamie O’Neill’s novel about the love between two boys against the backdrop of the 1916 Easter Rising, electrified audiences with its visual imagery and emotion. The stage slowly filled with water while dancers Terry Michael and Cai Tomos moved from slow and measured to angular and anguished as political events loomed.

From these influential trailblazers the Welsh dance landscape has widened its horizons. To give just a few examples, there is Coreo Cymru, based at Chapter, whose mission is to take contemporary dance out of its ivory tower and into the consciousness of the Strictly Come Dancing masses. Can creative director Carole Blade break the foxtrot fixation, the sequin sensibility, the corny moves and the self-deluded flattery of human preenings that seduce so many? Hmm…let’s hope so. Then there’s India Dance Wales, founded by Kiran Ratna in Cardiff in 1983 to perform the traditional Bharata Natyam and fuse cultures to invent wholly new forms, like Mahabharata Mabinogion which brought together Indian and Welsh legends; Ballet Nimba, a brilliantly dynamic African dance troupe accompanied by terrific musicians under the artistic direction of Idrissa Camara from Guinea; the Harnisch-Lacey Dance Theatre, founded in Cardiff in 2007 by innovative German-born choreographer and dancer Sandra Harnisch-Lacey; National Youth Dance Wales, launched in 2000, which holds summer courses for 16-21 year-olds and puts on annual productions at Sherman Cymru; Patuá Dance, a Chapter-based Latino-Cymreig fusion founded by Brazilian dancer/choreographer Fernanda Amaral, guaranteed to enliven street parties, festivals and carnivals; and Striking Attitudes, another Cardiff company, run by Caroline Lamb, which specialises in working with the “physical wisdom” of the older dancer. Lamb’s beautiful 2011 film Footfalls struck a blow against ageism and included leotard-liberated amateur dancers aged 50 to 93 from across Wales.

On top of this, dance education in Wales has finally got to the starting gate. For too long Welsh students of dance had to go to England as there was no dedicated dance school for aspiring professionals in the whole of Wales. That was rectified when the first-ever Welsh degree course in dance began at Cardiff Metropolitan University (then UWIC) in 2003. And, if only to prove that not everything in Wales has to happen in Cardiff, beyond this city there are other significant dance companies operating, for example Ballet Cymru, based in Newport, and the Dynion all-male contemporary dance troupe plus community dance project Meibion, based in Swansea.

So CDF15, as the inaugural Cardiff Dance Festival is being tagged, arrives with a fair wind and real momentum behind it. A sure-fire highlight will be festival opener Dawns Ysbrydion (Ghost Dance), an examination of endangered cultures filtered through the destruction of Welsh-speaking communities to create the Tryweryn reservoir for Liverpool and the tragic dispossession dances of the native American tribes, starring the peerless Eddie Ladd leading an all-female cast. Other stand-out events on the agenda include Groove On Down The Road, a hip-hop re-imagining of The Wizard Of OzYellow Towel, a dissection of black stereotypes by creative Canadian choreographer Dana Michel; and three brand new NDCW productions. No need for ballgowns, long white gloves, dinner jackets and black ties; go as you are.