Rosemary Lee's 'Under the Vaulted Sky' at the Cathedral of Trees, Milton Keynes.  Photo © Shaun Armstrong

Rosemary Lee’s ‘Under the Vaulted Sky’ at the Cathedral of Trees, Milton Keynes.
Photo © Shaun Armstrong

Rosemary Lee: Under The Vaulted Sky
Casus: Knee Deep
Ilotopie: Fous de Bassin (Water Fools)

Various venues; July 18, 2014

Stuart Sweeney

The opening night of Milton Keynes International Festival, IF, offered a trio of performances as a curtain raiser to an impressive ten days of programmes covering a wide range of the Arts. The main festival site, South Willen Lake Park, proved an attractive venue on a hot, sunny day.

The first presentation, “Under The Vaulted Sky”, was created by Rosemary Lee, one of the foremost community dance makers in this country. A few years ago for London’s Dance Umbrella she created “Square Dancing” a suite of four contrasted works in parks around Bloomsbury, which proved one of the highlights of the festival. For IF, she again chose an arboreal setting – and what a setting. The Cathedral of Trees, created 30 years ago by Neil Higson, mirrors the floor plan of Norwich Cathedral and Lee knew when she first saw it that she had to make a work there, despite the daunting size of the project. But with the full-hearted backing of the festival management and significant additional funding from Arts Council England, Lee was able to bring it to fruition.

For an hour we walked, stood and sat in a variety of settings within the Cathedral, reminding me of the religious ceremonies that take place in stone cathedrals where a choir move around the walkways stopping and singing in different locations. The light broken by the foliage produced a magical dappled setting for the 100 performers. Throughout we were directed around the site by individual performers gesturing with calm grace. As we walked to our first stop, solo dancers in gold spun, jumped and stamped on the spot. Then a cavalcade in red moved down the central aisle of the nave, swinging arms, bending and ringing bells – a favourite with Lee.  As they completed their journey we walked through to the next setting; as our pathways crossed, I was presented with an unforgettable image of the long line of dancers stretching away from me with arms reaching up and swaying in canon.

Our next stop was in a rectangular space with a dozen or so young acolytes in two groups on opposite sides of the space, each with a box.  The boxes were repeatedly opened for inspection by their fellows and placed in two stacks. Whispers were passed from one to another and dances in lines, curves, and circles unfolded. Eventually the boxes were opened for display to the audience: filled with earth and grass with a single bright metal fern. Next we walked around the outside the Cathedral with various dances along the way and ancient trumpets resonating from a high mound.

Rosemary Lee's 'Under the Vaulted Sky'.  Photo © Shaun Armstrong

Rosemary Lee’s ‘Under the Vaulted Sky’.
Photo © Shaun Armstrong

For the final stage we re-entered the Cathedral and stood on one of the central walkways, as musicians created a series of soundscapes and the dancers in different groups around the site moved back and forwards taking turns to be the centre of attraction and creating images such as a forest of splayed hands around a single dancer.

The work concluded with the audience walking down the aisle with the performers swaying alongside us as if in a trance and finally the boxes were displayed to us once more. The community dancers alongside some young professionals impressed me with their commitment to the choreography and they performed with a power and focus that paid tribute both to Lee and her collaborator, Fiona Millward. An unforgettable experience that underlined the high quality art that community dance can provide when guided by the right hands.

Australia is one of the leading countries for modern circus and their Casus presented “Knee Deep”.  The four performers are lithe and powerful as they perform their amazing tricks with human triple uprights, and ropes and harnesses skilfully employed. Eggs and how not to break them, even when walking on them, form an occasional unifying feature, but towards the end of the hour long show a lack of variety produced a feeling of deja vu, which doesn’t happen for me with some other modern circus companies.

The 10 o’clock closing item was “Fous de Bassin (Water Fools)” presented by Ilotopie. The still images I saw beforehand looked astonishing. Humdrum items such as mini cars, beds and cycles move around on Willen Lake and are joined by strange contraptions reminiscent of Heath Robinson with Gods, demons and assorted weirdos. The bright lights, flames and fireworks were augmented by accident with lightning, resonant thunder and a downpour halfway through the performance. And yet, the lack of a clear narrative, the distance of the performers from the shore and too many slow sections meant that “Fous de Bassin” didn’t live up to the promise of the photographs.

So, not for the first time in my experience, a community dance performance eclipsed professional productions. Nevertheless, my trip to Milton Keynes was worth it, primarily for “Under the Vaulted Sky”, but I am impressed by the breadth and distinctive qualities of the offerings in this festival.  I’m already looking forward to see what next year brings.