Despite being unfunded and run entirely by volunteers giving their time to the cause of contemporary dance, the second day of Cloud Dance Festival: Firefly brought delightful relief to a hot sticky summer Saturday, giving the audience of both dance fanatics and those new to dance an evening of top quality performances set to get hearts racing and brains whirring with excitement.

The show opened with Valhöll, an interpretation of the Norse myth & ideology of death by new Northern company, Exquisite Corpse | Dance Theatre. Dressed in Spartan costumes and flanked by the howls of wolves & the chill of the Arctic wind, the dancers engaged in a continuous struggle between each other and the elements and the Valkyries – personified by the two female dancers – who swept down to pluck their souls from their bodies during battle. The piece started well with genuine feel of strength and ferocity in the dancer’s balletic movements, reflecting the warrior ideals of Norse culture & mythology. Unfortunately this fierceness seemed to peter out over the course of the piece as the dancers seemed to struggle to keep up with the intensity of the narrative behind the piece and the overall feeling was that of a performance that was too long for the dancers to sustain the necessary commitment & ferocity to do it justice.

Next came Patriot, a solo from Hofesh Shechter dancer James Finnemore, making his debut outing as a choreographer since joining the company. The fluid, lyrical movement of Finnemore’s repeated choreographic phrases told a story of a man stuck in a cycle based on expectations. This was punctuated by blackouts as each expectation was challenged and confronted in turn, testing his blind dedication to his own expectations and ours. This piece was a good introduction to James Finnemore as a solo performer rather than as a member of Hofesh Shechter, and it could leave the audience with a lasting set of unanswered questions if developed further.

Slanjayvah Danza returned to the festival with Lunar-tic, a new solo from company director, Jenni Wren, exploring the relationship between ‘craziness’ and the cycles of nature. Wren appeared as a scarlet woman, dressed in red, imprisoned and controlled by a circle of moonlight on the stage. Lyrical phrases soon gave way to increasingly frantic and staccato movements as the madness & mania of the moon began to take over and drive her into a series of seemingly endless repetitions. These repetitions were punctuated by moments of relief and brought to a sharp & abrupt end as the ‘craziness’ passed as suddenly as it had begun.

Gerrard Martin Dance presented D-Illusion, a beautiful duet illustrating every woman’s struggle with the modern perceptions of beauty and body perfection. Two dancers presented two contrasting images of beauty: Vanessa Abreu as the naturally beautiful, ordinary woman, and Claire Talbot as the perpetually glamorous coquette constantly flirting with the audience. They circled one another, battling for control over the image in front of them and trying to mould it to fit a certain set of ideals. During the evolution of the piece we see the Claire Talbot’s relentless taunting of her opposite number as she fuels her spiral of body obsession through antagonistic movements and contact as she hounds her. As the piece draws to a close, one dancer engulfs the other and clings desperately to her, leaving us wondering who is creating whom in this cycle of obsession.

New and upcoming company James Cousins Dance presented a work filled with raw emotion and contrasts. Taste Water Again opens with the juxtaposition of a single female dancer, Katie Lusby, expressing her grief in the rain as the group around her continues to go about their daily business, not noticing and not caring that she is suffering. The flowing and lyrical movement style of Lusby, punctuated by pauses and moments of sudden movement, tells the story of her progression through the grieving process in a world that neither knows nor cares about the reason for it. Her interactions with the other dancers through dynamic physical duets and unified group phrases highlights how her grief sets her apart form them and how they reject her for her grief, preferring to mingle with one another rather than face the tragedy behind the grief with her. Taste Water Again is a powerful and multi-layered piece that presents the evolution of grief and how we as a society react to it.

Ross Cooper’s This Is Winter brings the beauty of the raw physicality of dance to the stage in a dazzling evocation of winter. The balletic movement of the performers complemented the classical score and the elegant feel of the narrative of the piece. Mixing precisely choreographed duets and solo sections with simple lighting to create the icy feel of winter and the contrast between the warmth of hearth & home and the harshness of outside. This is a beautifully-executed piece and a credit to Cooper as choreographer, however the whole thing was given a slightly amateurish feel by the sonnet at the start of the piece, despite being recited by Matthew Hawkins. Whilst this did give greater context the piece, it would have matched the elegance of the piece better if it had been rehearsed rather than read from paper.

The night culminated with Kristen McNally’s “Don’t hate the player, Hate the game”, an edgy indie ballet performed by hip-hop dancer Tommy Franzén. The exquisite choreography is peppered with pop culture references from Reservoir Dogs to Michael Jackson and this is reflected in the modern score and the urban edge that Franzén brings to the classical ballet movements within the piece. The themes of conformity & control that inspired McNally quickly become evident as the dancer shifts seamlessly between conforming to and resisting the demands of the music. Franzén personifies this character wonderfully, engaging the audience throughout and leading us on the same adrenaline-filled journey that he is going through on stage. The blending of the classical and the modern is the true genius of this piece, making it endlessly engaging to a modern audience of dance lovers and dance first timers.

Overall, this was a varied and interesting night of dance, set to appeal to both traditional and non-traditional audiences. Cloud Dance Festival is now in its 5th year and continues to pioneer excellence in contemporary dance & encourage new companies to perform and develop their work for modern audiences. We can only hope that it is able to continue to do so during this harsh economic climate.

Reviewed by Kim Lofthouse of Cultiv8 Arts for Cloud Dance Festival