Henri Oguike inspires superlatives.
The London-based choreographer has been dubbed the “classiest,” “most musically astute,” and “most versatile” dance-maker in Britian by England’s persnickety critics.
For all the accolades, Oguike remains largely unknown in America, a circumstance that’s sure to end this summer. Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, is putting the considerable weight of her world-famous summer dance festival behind Oguike, hosting his ensemble for a week of performances in the storied Ted Shawn Theater in Becket, Massachusetts. The booking is a ringing endorsement of the choreographer’s exhilarating and intense dance inventiveness.
“I’m looking for unique voices,” says Baff, who watches hundreds of dances during the off-season. “Henri’s works are very vigorous and physical. You wonder how his dancers get through to the end of the performance.”
Critics and audiences alike respond to the way Oguike returns dance to its musical roots. His attitude toward dance as an expression of music is a no-no to most European post-moderns, whose emphasis is on conceptual movement over passionate musicality. His inspirations run from Shostakovich, Scarlatti, and Vivaldi to contemporary composers like Steve Martland. Yet Oguike differs from musically minded American moderns as well. His bold combinations often have as much to do with street movement as with the stage athleticism of a Mark Morris or Paul Taylor.
“Second Signal,” a piece planned specifically for Jacob’s Pillow, is set to live taiko drumming, the boisterous, propulsive percussion style of Japan. “This is the kind of piece that needs to be at the Pillow,” said Baff, whose musical tastes run to the exotic. Like others who have seen Oguike’s company, Baff rhapsodized about his dancers—strong soloists who are rigorous in their ensemble work. Lyndsey Winship of the British Ballet-Dance Magazine praised the performers’ individuality: “These are no identikit dancers,” he wrote. “Charlotte Eatock is slight and precise while Nuno Silva is tall and muscular, with a giant leap to match. Sarita Piotrowski has more attack than most, really swiping the air and seeming to get there almost before the beat.”
Oguike’s international soul is undoubtedly a product of his Nigerian/Welsh background. He was raised in Nigeria with his father until age 10, then settled with his mother in Wales. There, as a teen, he spent his free time breakdancing in clubs. His first formal training in dance came in college. He was a founding member of the Richard Alston Dance Company in 1994, but has said he never considered himself “a real dancer.” When his performing career was cut short by a torn Achilles heel, he went into choreography. He established his company in 1999, and was soon collecting raves and awards from the English dance world. In a review of Oguike for Ballet-Dance Magazine, Winship managed to restrain his enthusiasm for the choreographer, but only slightly.
“Oguike is a real talent, who will no doubt continue to explore and experiment with steps and scores,” the critic wrote. “The work might not always reach choreographic perfection but that’s no reason to feel guilty about enjoying it so much.”
The Henry Oguike Dance Company will appear at Jacob’s Pillow August 15 through 19.
(413) 243-0745; www.jacobspillow.org.