Sunday 6th December 2009 and Cloud Dance Festival returned with its latest showcase Parade. As usual this last choreographic platform of the year was an assortment of various styles and offerings.

Dieciembre Dance Group opened the event with The House of Bernarda Alba, a dark tale exploring female repression, loss of innocence and the harbouring of secrets and lies for the sake of a family’s reputation. From the outset choreographer Lucía Piquero plays with the weighty themes of religion, tradition and ritual, with seven female dancers entering the stage modestly, heads scarfed and bowed, amidst two long tables covered in white cloth. Symbolic gestures, deep womanly plies in second and long leans are combined with smooth seamless dancing, which finely interpret the sharpness and stresses of Alberto Garcia’s original Flamenco styled melody. In fact the overall stylisation and physicality of the dance often feels familiarly Graham in nature. Refreshingly, each dancer also attacks the choreography with their own individuality, keenly expressing the passion, shame and burdens that Bernarda Alba and her daughters are made to bare. However, despite such hardships and eventual tragic endings one can’t help feeling that Piquero wants us left remembering that more than just victims, these women are courageous and strong.

Previously performed at dance platform Resolution, this current version of Callas, by Sophia Hurdley, is an intriguing re-work. The addition of Mr RJ Murrow as narrator and regular inserts of black and white film projection add a cool retro feel to the dance, as well as providing for the audience some context and sense of glamour. The clear characterisation of the three protagonists, Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy are the strength of the work, drawing one into the sadness and inevitable tragedy of the love triangle. With her elongated, swooping and soft gestures, Hurdley is especially elegant and refined as the passionate opera diva Callas. Even in her grief as the abandoned woman, the choreographer manages to retain in the movement quality a believable dignified, bound grace of a woman putting on a brave face for her public. Performer James Lee’s Onassis successfully comes across as a serious, upright, leaden and somewhat unsophisticated alpha male who becomes dazzled by the newest model in store. So enters Shelby Williams, whose passionless and doll-like Kennedy shifts about the stage angular and rigid, offering in stark contrast to Callas a subtly manipulative, dominant woman used to getting what she wants.

Hurdley’s personal fervour for the subject of Callas as an icon is apparent, therefore it is admirable that she has chosen to be more selective with the movement vocabulary, omitting various phrases and opting for simplicity of staging. Thus the work is transformed from what could potentially be an indulgent Mathew Bourne-esque imitation, into a personal, poignant and moving comment on a moment in time.

Take one soloist during the rehearsal process, match her up with several partners, take them away and what you are left with are the physical remains that form the beautiful yet haunting, Here, Still Here, Still, by Lila Dance. Stripped to basics in black knickers and sports bra, Carrie Whitaker is a performer at the technical and athletic peak of her abilities, as she manipulates her joints and muscles through a series of awkward, near impossible, yet fascinating movement phrases. Puppet-like she drops to floor, twists, ripples, flips over into a freeze balance, before in a flash is up standing again. The effect is eerie. Reminiscent of pressing the rewind button and watching someone move in reverse, this jerky, disjointed bodily flow brings to mind a demented character from a Japanese horror film. As she looks behind her, reaches out, then circles an empty space, the intention of the presence of absence in the work is palpable. This is due to Whitaker’s acute ability to physically and emotionally manifest an energy that exists only in her memory of it, whilst the restricted use of the stage also adds to the tension and claustrophobia of the dance. Compelling, disturbing, powerful and at times sad, choreographers Abi Mortimer and Carrie Whitaker have provided us with choreographic exploration and experimentation at its stunning best.

In Free me out of existence, Sezdrenah Dance Theatre perform an ambitious work, exploring one soul mentally and physically overcome by three new alter egos or mind states. Dressed all in white, a male dancer enters downstage into a single spotlight and proceeds to manipulate his joints and muscles through waving, ripples and isolations. Upstage, wearing ill-fitting long black leather coats, two more darker male figures appear in separate spotlights and joining forces they proceed to influence, control and possess the body and spirit of the man before them. Although repetitious, choreographer Denzil Barnes’ choreography is inventive with flavours of street dance, African and martial arts all thrown into the mix. Particularly significant images are the looming duo at the back of stage taking on the quality of a creeping deadly serpent, or the Sufferer descending further into an agitated state as he’s bewitched by their obia-type powers. Music for the dance work is upbeat and current, whilst a video projection which also appears is especially well-edited and produced. However, the overuse of breath in the opening solo, a clichéd use of white as pure and black as evil and a penchant for music video styling - rather than greater focus on choreographic structure and development – sadly suspend Free me out of existence from graduating to a more sophisticated piece of theatre.

In their second appearance for Cloud Dance Festival, Sol Dans premiered their newest work Groundlings. With big windswept tousled hair, cream dresses and bare skin covered with earthy toned body paints, the six female dancers offered us a glimpse into their fantastical world of random happenings and mischievous fun. In the creator Melody Squire’s familiar style, the jazzy influenced choreography veers from snappy and dynamic to playful abandon. Strips of cling film stretched across the front and back of the stage acted as a curious web-like substance, capable of binding the dancers from their frolics. The image of two dancers trapped wide-eyed, intense and paralysed was a particular memorable moment, whilst another duet surprised us as one dancer suddenly froze upside whilst her partner held tightly onto her waist and gazed on through her splayed legs. It is within these unexpected moments that the potential for humour and further excitement within the dance exist. This is the crux of the matter, for as we become more drawn into the escapism of Groundlings and its eclectic energy, one yearns to see further development and exploration within the relationships between these odd creatures. Who are they? What hierarchies do they bow to? And what are their true secrets? But then alas, in the blink of an eye, a dancer is rolled off in cling film by her companions and this short but sweet romp, has sadly ended.

Nexus Dance graced Parade with two short solos choreographed by Sian Hopkins. In “Of Nothing”, Josh Ben-Tovim eats up the space in an emotional and angst-filled piece. Dancing in just jeans and lithe naked torso, he literally bares us his soul, throwing the weight of his body and arms fiercely, before thrashing against an invisible force and energy from within. Although Ben-Tovim is a capable and passionate performer, the solo is taken from another work, and therefore feels as if we’re witnessing it out of context, that we are exposed to an exaggerated level of intensity and turmoil right from the outset. In “They Who Have Wings”, Sian Hopkins performs to a melody by Tom Kirkpatrick, reminiscent of the Rolling Stone’s Rooster. Whilst Hopkins’s vocabulary is not necessarily original or inventive, her passion and sincerity are aptly felt, as gracefully and confidently she slices and carves through the dance space, her weight on and off kilter.

Bringing an alternative dimension to Cloud Dance Festival, the renowned Ballet Black appeared for the first time, showcasing the duet Pendulum. Taking to the stage in the act of combat and competition, two performers freely demonstrating their own unique dynamism. However, in an instant, they both are challenged to compromise and come together, using weight and counter-balance to achieve a physical cohesion. This constant shift from light to dark throughout the duet is marked in its opening moments with an explosive spiral turn, converted swiftly into a controlled pivot turn en pointe. Though petite in stature, dancer Cira Robinson executes Martin Lawrence’s intricate and demanding choreography with a wonderfully commanding and cool demeanour, whilst partner Jazmon Voss responded his multiple pirouettes and huge leaps with a strength and assured swagger of his own. Composer Steve Reich’s constant, Pendulum Music, also adds to the pressure box atmosphere of the dance and though individually delightful to watch, both dancers are fortunately a well-suited partnership, generating a close and at times sexy tension. In one instance Robinson leans into, pulls away and then wraps herself cat like around Voss, who in a heartbeat whips her airborne into a reverse spin and catch. And so follows a series of breath taking lifts that endlessly seem to rise and arc before landing again. Altogether an enjoyable, vibrant and classy performance.