Fast becoming a regular event in the dance calendar, Cloud Dance Festival returned to Jacksons Lane theatre in July with its latest programme of works, Open Your Eyes.

Friday night’s activities were kicked off with Is this your journey...? by Intrinsic Dance Company. Upbeat and full of impact, this dance work attempted to address the personal struggles we encounter and strive to overcome, or else they defeat us. Opening to the sounds of Lupe Fiasco’s Streets On Fire, on a stage lit by familiar squares of light, the quartet of female performers mixed Contemporary dance with funky Street Dance motions and Breaking foot work, to create a dance display that in its development and structure was indicative of Hip-Hop theatre. The urban and fresh choreography kept pace from start to finish, as the girls pulled, pushed, clung to and cut each other down; their physicality and passion illustrating the constant pressure and turmoil in which they exist. Although the dancers displayed a strong sense of musicality and timing, there were admittedly moments when the choreography followed the music a little too literally. It was also apparent that these dancers are still developing and maturing technically. That said Is this your journey...? is a valiant effort from four strong and promising young female artists.

With the use of a photographic image as inspiration for (re) Birth of Venus, by Fragmented Performance Company, it is perhaps not surprising that several striking picturesque moments echo throughout the dance. One dancer enters the stage, circling her wrist methodically. Another enters mimicking this gesture and then passes it onto another, then another creating a simple yet eerie wave effect. A solo female demonstrates a feat of gymnastics, before adopting a handstand and walking randomly through the group. Suddenly the six female dancers are in an arch formation, one hand in the air rocking from side to side; they drop to a generous second plie, adopting different directions, then weave deftly in and out of each other and out into the distance. It is these fleeting moments directed by Tom Sykes that unexpectedly make (re) Birth of Venus an effective and intriguing work – harbouring ghostly memories of the past. One is left curious to know Sykes’ original image and wondering who are these females before us? Literal representations of the mythical beauty Venus or maybe a darker narrative lurks beneath the surface? Trance-like, two dancers centre stage mutually gaze down, as if into a mirror and then up to the heavens, possibly searching for the answers themselves.

The ‘Why Not’ Collective’s On Romance, endeavoured to explore the notion of what is romance in dance, the conditions that might be required for romance not to exist...and possibly a reason why sometimes it’s best not to read the programme notes. A silent film projection of David Lean’s classic romance movie Brief Encounter, sets the scene as a male performer amusingly narrates the potential mushy dialogue of both male and female actors. Across stage a chorus of six dancers writhe on the floor responding to his words; their actions suggesting longing and sexual yearning with the hitching up of bottoms and the thrusting of chests into the air. A tango inspired melody invites a light and lyrical group dance, finished by a series of duets where one is privy to an affectionate stroke of the cheek, the brushing of fingers along the spine up towards a bare neck and the lilt of a slow intimate dance. So can romance exist when removed from narrative or character? The answer appears to be an obvious and effortless yes. After all, the initial moments of filmic image depicting a famous love scene, sets a powerful context within the dance, where character and narrative are never really removed or forgotten. This in turn compels the audience to associate the choreography that follows with romance throughout the duration of the dance. Even when the dancers themselves perform more abstract movement or carry neutral, dead pan and characterless facial expressions, we still feel compelled to read into their actions and link them with the romantic premise surrounding them, which is furthered by an emotive piano and violin accompaniment. Perhaps if choreographer Edward Mitton had applied the question of romance in dance to elements of movement, film and music that were more traditionally abstract he would have an exploration more challenging and accurate to his published intentions. However, throwing the programme notes aside, danced by a mixed ensemble of pleasant and very watchable performers, Mitton has created an entertaining and romantic parody, with the potential to be delightfully humorous and deliciously camp.

In Beddiquette by Piece By Piece Company, choreographer Despina Mavrou promises a humorous dance full of bedtime habits and quirky goings on beneath the bed sheets but unfortunately fails to deliver. A simple rectangle of light acts as a makeshift bed for dancer Steven Murphy, who is all elbows, knees and ankles, like some curious lizard, as we watch him awake from slumber. A quilt-covered Despina enters the stage representing the willing yet perhaps long suffering partner, but sadly as the couple engage in a lacklustre and stilted duet this is as interesting and quirky as events get.

A limited use of dance vocabulary, obvious preparations before lifts and partner work and a lack of synchronisation between the performers, results in a piece of unsophisticated choreography that appears to be short in genuine development and under rehearsed. It’s a shame as within the dance’s subject matter lies a wonderful opportunity to create a work with a clever vocabulary and dialogue between the performers that wittily and cheekily highlights some of the familiar scenarios, intimacies and idiosyncrasies between a knowing couple. Thus a brief and half hearted moment of passing wind and the stealing of bed sheets not only fails to raise our amusement but also to catch the imagination.

Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees comprise the weighty subject, taken on by young choreographers Jess McCormack and Kitty Smith for Vex Dance Theatre. In Bluebird, six girls clad in white dresses, gas masks and suitcases throw, jump and hurl themselves across the stage and amongst each other, as they depict the turmoil, confusion, chaos and experience of being displaced from home during the conflict of war. To a pressing techno sound track, each dancer rotated around a rigid floor pattern; arriving at one destination their clothes and belongings flying through the air in a veritable mess, only in a flash to be packed up and slickly piled into their suitcase again, ready for the next transition. Although the fixed formation of the performers’ and constant synchronicity of certain movement phrases became a touch repetitive, the ragged, loose yet physical choreography and the slick transitions in the dance, kept the dance intense.

Inspired by a collection of interviews and Vesna Maric’s memoir also named Bluebird, it’s hard for one to really comprehend the realities of such desperate circumstances, although visually Bluebird offers a brief insight. The final moments of the dance, as the girls passionately interact in frantic duets, then leave their partners to dance the phrase on their own - as if a part of them has been left behind whilst they venture to a strange new life - is inventive and acutely moving.

Along a rectangle of light diagonally placed across the stage, four dancers are frozen in portrait fashion, looking on pensive into the distance. The fifth dancer is soft, sinewy and then commanding as she twists, falls, then whips out a double turn in the space. Poetically she is sharing with the audience her own private experience, only to return and merge back amongst the tableau of watchers. Stepping forward in her place, a new dancer enters the space and so begins another exquisite and arresting solo. From the intrepid abandon of the dancers’ bodies which then switch to impeccable control, to the Michael Clark-styled lean-back walks and a young man’s intense and frustrated head shakes and self inflicted punches, Sian Hopkins’s Soul Notes is a mesmerising and accomplished choreographic statement; danced to the clinical tones of Tom Kirkpatrick’s electronic voiceover, John Fruciante’s Been Insane and the sounds of Emmalina Thompsell’s violin.

Performed by an ensemble of dancers who make up Nexus Dance, this strong divine company not only fully embody and commit to the complex and technically challenging movement vocabulary set before them, but their own poignant and dramatic performances suggests a talent and understanding beyond their young years.

Three dancers, each harnessed to three long ropes secured inside the right hand stage wings. In a style reminiscent of Butoh they move individually in slow motion, barely stretching, barely unfolding limbs; their eyes are fixed across stage, on the horizon where they drawn towards an invisible, irresistible force. Leaning forwards like maiden heads they are poised on the brink, though that which they seek remains just out of reach... Henry Fry and Riccardo Buscarini’s Places of Non-Belonging is a simple yet curious study. Initially we feel the possibility of a vastness of space and the endless quality of time, as the dancers move determined to reach their illusive goal. Then as the three give into the force of their make shift bungees and allow themselves to fall and be whipped backwards, potentially it is thrilling to watch. From an audience perspective, our belief in the performers’ struggle is determined by how much tension, force and then apparent loss of that control that they are able to create. Unfortunately this is not always achieved effectively by individual dancers - though this minor detail also lies in the choreographers’ direction of the work. However, more profoundly, this dance work not only encourages one to think about a place they long to belong though are constantly denied access to, but also the power of assuming a controlled, steady and consistent force to cut through the difficulty or obstacles we may face in life. The moment we try too hard, become frantic or fail to focus our energy our struggle becomes greater.

Friday’s dance programme was brought to a close by Dam Van HuynhSudden Change of Event. Set to experimental sounding vocals from E. Laine and Leon Michener’s accompanying keyboard, choreographer Van Huynh seems to accomplish what the work’s title suggests. Five dancers expressing their individual languages and characteristics interact with and relate to each other. At a given moment a particular choice is decided and what appears to be a harmonious, deliberate partnership is realised. The next instant a new choice is made and the happening ends as suddenly as it began, the performers pressed to adapt to a new situation or alternatively leave the space. Events also repeat themselves, often altering in their repetition. This occurs during the opening section, where several dancers use various methods to mark out the performance space by laying gaffer tape upon the stage. A metal framed tank-like structure also sits in the space, inviting the protagonists to alter its inner space by placing a hand or a limb inside, until a female dancer resolves to occupy it fully and begin a lithe and curious solo.

Van Huynh’s treatment of the dance vocabulary, which engages with gestures, sequentially shifts through joints and explores the extremities and possibilities of the torso, makes for a detailed, fluid and distinct movement language. Sensual yet almost animalistic, his style is as fascinating to watch as the occurring theme of the dance. Again the choreography is achieved by a company of technically gifted and adept dancers who connect, influence, manipulate and manoeuvre each other with sensitivity, finesse and assurance. That said, this style of movement, reminiscent to that of renowned choreographer Wayne McGregor, is at times in danger of overloading the viewer with too much vocabulary and so consequently moments that were intriguing and potentially special can veer towards monotony.

Reviewed by Michelle Harris for Cloud Dance Festival