Battle of Ideas dance preview

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Our capital just can’t keep still… Dance editor Lyndsey Winship looks at London’s history as a hotbed of daring dance, in a dress rehearsal for her role as a panellist in the forthcoming Battle of Ideas Battle Satellite debates

  • Battle of Ideas dance preview

    Jonzi D © Richard Legge

  • In the arts, new ideas often come with a large boot to the backside of the ideologies that precede them. In dance, for instance, ballet has symbolised the establishment since its origins in the court of Louis XIV. But the last century saw a flurry of new ideas, from Nijinsky’s Ballets Russes to the free-spirited Isadora Duncan, while today the buzz in schools and theatres is all about street dance. It’s a familiar pattern of cultural succession, and one that is at the heart of the Battle of Ideas weekend – a debating festival taking place at the Royal College of Art on November 1 and 2. Its organisers at the Institute of Ideas, in association with Time Out, are hosting a series of Battle Satellites – debates on new thought in fields ranging from UK foreign policy to architecture. As part of the series, we’ll be discussing street dance’s rise and asking if ‘in with the new’ has to mean ‘out with the old’. As a warm-up, here’s a look at some particularly antagonistic moments in London’s dance history.

    Charleston, 1920s

    At the turn of the twentieth century, social dancing was pretty staid; waltzes and polkas were as raunchy as it got. But the arrival of jazz from America changed all that. Dancers jumped at the chance to do the turkey trot and the bunny hug or, frankly, anything that meant pressing flesh with partners. Wildest of all was the Charleston, with its leg-kicking and arm-flinging and a soundtrack racing past 200bpm (eat your heart out, happy hardcore). London club owner Santos Casani is said to have caused a stir dancing the Charleston on top of a moving taxi, and the dance was deemed so scandalous that it was banned in some ballrooms, while others made do with putting up signs demanding ‘PCQ’ – ‘Please Charleston Quietly’.

    Modern dance, 1950s

    In 1954, modern dance pioneer Martha Graham and her company made their London debut at the Saville Theatre, and ballet fans were bewildered. Where ballet was about weightlessly soaring into the air, Graham’s modern dance was rooted to the earth; where ballet required soft, delicate lines, Graham designed strong angles; and thematically it was out with fairy tales and frivolities and in with psycho-drama, mythology and real-life stories. It was a pivotal night. While many were baffled, others were inspired, including businessman and philanthropist Robin Howard, who was so seduced by Graham that he went on to found the London Contemporary Dance School.

    Minimalism, 1970s

    As avant-garde dance boomed, many artists threw out Graham’s theatricality in favour of minimal, everyday gestures. The first Dance Umbrella festival in 1978 introduced American artist Douglas Dunn to London audiences. His ‘Gestures in Red’ – a 60-minute solo, performed in silence – caused a near-riot: one man shouted out during the show that he had never been so insulted in his life, and the festival director, Val Bourne, faced a barrage of insults in the interval. Dunn was so scared he told Bourne he thought he’d be shot when he went onstage for the second show.

    Fusion, now

    Rather than rejecting their predecessors outright, modern innovators are blending different dance forms together. So while Wayne McGregor stretches the limits of classical dance as resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, ex-Royal Ballet dancer Russell Maliphant is incorporating martial arts into his work. You can see global influences crossing borders left, right and centre, as Robert Hylton lets hip hop collide with contemporary dance and a myriad of street dancers take their work into the theatre, led by the likes of Jonzi D.

    Satellite link-ups

    A selection of ‘Battle Satellites’ debates, staged in association with Time Out ‘Poetry and radicalism’ Vibe Live, Oct 7, 7pm.‘What is the point of British foreign policy?’ London South Bank University, Oct 9, 7pm.‘Who needs ballet when we’ve got street dance?’ Vibe Live, Oct 21, 7pm.‘Artists should elect their own parliament’ Young Vic Theatre, Oct 22, 6pm. www.battleofideas.org.uk

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