This post contains spoilers.

The opening sequence of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God features a young girl frantically cycling through Budapest city centre, pursued by a large pack of dogs. Like Hitchcock’s birds, the hounds seem intent on causing chaos, driven to violent means for reasons we do not yet know. White God is another in a long lineage of literary works in which animals serve an allegorical purpose; Hungary has faced increasing levels of racism in recent years, and the degradation of mixed-breed dogs in the film forms a fairly straight-forward parallel here. At White God’s core is the relationship between Lilla, a young girl, and her dog, Hagen. While Lilla loves Hagen unconditionally, her father’s worldview is rather different; irritated by the dog’s presence, and facing fines to keep the mutt in his house, he chooses instead to abandon it on the street.

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

Lilla, we learn, is a keen trumpeter, and frequently attends a youth orchestra. In fact, her life appears to consist of nothing other than her orchestra and her dog, along with the impact that these have on the relationship with her father. Her music is thus pitted directly against Hagen — it would seem that Lilla is being forced to make a choice between the two. She is temporarily thrown out of her orchestra for bringing Hagen to a rehearsal; after Hagen is abandoned, she skips an orchestral outing to Tannhäuser in order to look for him. Noting her absence from the Tannhäuser trip, the orchestra’s conductor grills Lilla on the opera’s subject matter: What is it about? Lilla replies pointedly that it is about love.

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

The tension between Hagen and Lilla’s music is never more evident than during the orchestra’s concert, which is interrupted by the pack of dogs previously rampaging the city. This climactic scene can be interpreted as a comment on the perceived cultural differences accompanying class and racial divides, those prejudices that fuel the discrimination that many have faced in Hungary. White, bourgeois, ‘high’ culture is here disturbed by the ‘low’, mixed-breed animals, whose place is considered to be not in the concert hall but out on the streets, or locked away in pounds, hidden, neither seen nor heard.

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

In the final scene of the film, Hagen advances on Lilla as her father stands nearby, readied with makeshift blowtorch in hand. Favouring the pacifistic approach, Lilla picks up her trumpet, which has been tellingly poking out the top of her backpack for much of the film, and begins to play. With a dozen or so notes of Wagner, Hagen and his army of bloodthirsty hounds are tamed, sinking slowly to the floor and lying dormant. While some may find it ham-fisted, this ending makes sense dramaturgically, foreshadowed as it is by many previous scenes, including one in which Lilla caringly trumpets Hagen to sleep. If love is the subject of Tannhäuser – and, while Wagner’s opera is more complex, we can assume that we are meant to share the view of the film’s protagonist on this matter – White God’s message seems to be that love conquers all.


© Proton Cinema / Pola Pandora Filmproduktions / Filmpartners / The Chimney Pot / Film i Väst / ZDF/Arte

But the most important word here is arguably not ‘love’, but ‘conquer’, for the relationship between Lilla and Hagen in the closing scene is rather lopsided. Although Lilla subsequently lowers herself to the floor, keen to be considered as an ‘equal’ to the dogs, this does not alter the fact that she is the tamer, while Hagen is the tamed. To claim that White God ends on an even note would therefore be erroneous, however positive and good-willed the film’s message is intended to be.

Even more problematic, though, is the music with which Lilla asserts control of the situation. The scene rather romanticises the power of Tannhäuser and its composer, an individual who has been accused of bludgeoning his audiences into submission, who is a vehement anti-Semite, who is a white male, who is a kingpin of European ‘high’ culture. Is Lilla’s taming act, then, not just another assertion of cultural dominance? Is Wagner not a musical embodiment of the White God archetype that Mundruczó’s film is rightly questioning?

J. Wadsworth

‘White God’ was shown at the Ultimate Picture Palace on the 3rd and 7th March; for future film listings, please visit their website.

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‘For books are the shrines where the Saint is, or is believed, to be; and you have built an Ark to save learning from deluge.’

So said Francis Bacon to Thomas Bodley after the opening of the renowned Bodleian library in 1602.  The Bodleian is considered to be a symbol of Oxford University’s thirst for learning, and comprises of several library sites around the city.  This weekend heralded the reopening of the New Bodleian site, now known as the Weston Library, which is situated on Broad Street.  After several years of restoration the library is now once again functioning as a major book depository and study area for students.  The renovation has not only updated the physical building, but also seemingly the library’s attitude towards public engagement, as it now comprises an open ground-floor site which includes a café and a gift shop.  This idea of bringing the public into a University space has been further initiated through the library’s free Marks of Genius exhibition, which opened along with the library this weekend, and offers members of the public a wonderful glimpse into the special collections held by the Bodleian.

Audubon 'Birds of America'

Audubon ‘Birds of America’

Marks of Genius showcases the treasures of the Bodleian’s collections, with its exhibits ranging from medieval manuscripts to maps, and ephemera to correspondence.  The exhibition considers the premise behind the term ‘genius,’ providing examples of academic, artistic and literary genius from AD 880 to the present day, and focuses on those works of genius held by the Bodleian to be the most beautiful, and often the most valuable, objects of their kind.  Advertised highlights of the collection include a First Folio of Shakespeare’s works, a dust-jacket design for The Hobbit annotated by J.R.R. Tolkein himself, and a copy of the Magna Carta.  The curators bravely chose not to group these objects in categories of epoch or nationality, which would create a linear structure and narrative flow.  Rather, the objects are arranged in a more sporadic way, under broader groupings relating them in different ways to the concept of ‘genius.’  Although this structure is perhaps confusing at first, it certainly enhanced the feeling that these remarkable objects are intrinsically linked through their creativity, their beauty and their ‘genius,’ and drew some interesting connections between familiar and unfamiliar treasures.

Felix Mendelssohn 'Schilflied'

Felix Mendelssohn ‘Schilflied’

Crowds are naturally drawn to the more famous items in the collection, particularly the Tolkein dust-jacket, the Shakespearian First Folio and the Magna Carta.  The exhibition provides a wonderful opportunity to view these celebrated items, many of which hold a national significance, and it is very rare to be given the opportunity to admire them closely.  However, the myriad of other items in the exhibition should certainly not be underestimated.  Less famous, but equally beautiful, artefacts in the exhibition include William Morris’ manuscript of the Odes of Horace, a beautifully illuminated book by the Victorian writer and designer, a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s 1687 Philosophae Naturalis principa Mathematica, and an example of Jane Austen’s manuscript juvenilia.  The collection encompasses Ottoman manuscripts, seventeenth century Japanese scrolls, ancient cartography and letters from such celebrated figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Einstein.  The variety of objects on display offers something to all visitors, with the scientifically-minded, the literary, and the geographically-inclined guests able to find plenty to suit their tastes.

'The Hobbit' dust jacket © Bodleian Libraries

‘The Hobbit’ dust jacket © Bodleian Libraries

By opening its doors to families and tourists, the Bodleian allows members of the public a glimpse of the artefacts normally reserved for a privileged group of academics. This friendly and welcoming attitude clearly made a good impression on visitors, and the weekend’s entertainment extended to a printing press working in the hall, and a jazz band serenading guests in the café.  Proudly displaying its greatest treasures to the world, the Bodleian has made a step forward in bridging the gap between the public and academia, and should certainly be applauded for doing so.  This exhibition is remarkable in its beauty and the rarity of its objects, but enjoyment of it is not limited to bibliophiles.  Rather, this is an exhibition for anyone interested in the founding moments of ‘genius’ in the history of human civilization. 

S. Mitchell

Marks of Genius: Masterpieces from the Collections of the Bodleian Libraries runs from 21 March 2015 to 20 September 2015.  Admission is free and the exhibition is open daily; the full list of exhibits can be found here.

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Imagine an island that lies outside of time and reality – a place where women run faster than horses, animals speak, and tales can heal the dying. This is Nick Hennessey’s Ireland, a mythical world spun from the threads of stories and songs. His set The Ruined House of Skin, performed at the Story Museum last month, travels through this imagined Ireland, breathing life into its inhabitants through music and narrative. He appeared at the Story Museum after being voted the audience’s favourite act from last year, and it is not difficult to see why. Hennessey’s performances are uniquely compelling, exuding an intimate authority as he leads you from one storyscape to the next.

The stories that comprise The Ruined House of Skin are obviously of personal significance to Hennessey. He describes himself as “Irish without any sense of what that really means”, born to an Irish father who had never been to Ireland during his lifetime. His telling is subsequently steeped in a sense of misplaced nostalgia: not only yearning to be somewhere that you cannot be, but somewhere that you have only ever imagined to exist. This sense of chasing the impossible is reflected in the stories themselves. The King of Ireland lies dying, and tells his son that the only thing that can save him is the One True Tale. We follow the young man on his quest to find the Tale, an ineffable object which proves to be as elusive and intangible as Hennessey’s Ireland itself.

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Nick Hennessey ⓒ One Big Idea Photography

Some of the stories from The Ruined House of Skin are not quite as captivating as those from Where the Bear Sleeps, Hennessey’s selection of tales from the Finnish epic the Kalevala. There are a few hanging strands that are not woven into the larger narrative, such as the twins who never make an appearance after their traumatic separation at birth. However there is something cantankerously delightful about stories that refuse to conform to a listener’s expectations, and Hennessey’s performance more than compensated for any slight misgivings about some of the programme. He evoked the hag’s hut of skin with such a visceral physicality that I could almost smell the rotting flesh, feel the repugnant globules of fat adorning the door.

It almost becomes a cliché that at some point in a traditional tale, a poet with supernatural powers is likely to appear, speaking the world into existence or stopping time with their verses. And yet, sat in the dark listening to Hennessey’s words swirl around me, it is easy to see why storytellers have historically been accorded mythical, magical status. For a couple of hours in an empty room in Oxford, time pauses to hear kings, oceans, and spirits sung into creation on Irish shores.

L. C. Broad

For future events at the Story Museum, please visit their website. More information about Nick Hennessey is available here.

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Three months in, it has already become clear that the Arthur Miller centenary this year is not going to pass unnoticed in Oxford. Last month saw the Sheldonian Theatre stage an impressive student performance of The Crucible. This week the Oxford Playhouse hosts an original take on the play that would become Miller’s first critical success, All My Sons: a production by the Talawa Theatre Company, who describe themselves as “Britain’s primary Black-led theatre company.” Directed by Michael Buffong, the company delivers All My Sons with an all-Black cast. Their tour is a reprise of the same production from 2013, although the director emphasises that the relation to the centenary is a coincidence.

Based upon a true story, All My Sons is set in 1947, and most young men have come home from the war. The two sons of Joe Keller, who made money during the war manufacturing parts for the Air Force, both became Air Force officers: Chris made it back home, but Larry went missing in action. The playbill contains an insightful story on the status of Black men in the US armed forces: they could indeed become pilots, but only after a humiliating, segregated training.

'All My Sons' © Pamela Raith Photography

‘All My Sons’ © Pamela Raith Photography

A storm has just upturned the tree planted in memory of Larry on the day Chris Keller intends to ask Ann Deever’s hand in marriage. She used to be Larry’s girlfriend more than three years earlier. Kate Keller vehemently opposes the marriage as she refuses to admit that Larry is not going to come home. Ann, too, should wait for Larry. The Deevers and the Kellers turn out to have a long family history: Ann’s father got sent to prison for supplying the Air Force with faulty engine parts, causing the death of twenty-one pilots. Joe Keller, who owned the factory, walked free, although not everyone is convinced of his innocence.

Talawa make an impressive effort to convey the post-war US setting. The stage is impressively detailed, with the almost life-sized veranda looking very realistic, and details such as the apples from Larry’s fallen tree and the grape juice being real. The actors all speak in US accents, for which the company has called in the expertise of dialect coach Mark Langley. It seemed that at the beginning of the play, the actors needed to find their way into this accent, but once the play is under way, Langley’s results prove to be impressive. The only oddity is that Joe Keller has an accent that is significantly different from that of the rest of his family.

'All My Sons' © Pamela Raith Photography

‘All My Sons’ © Pamela Raith Photography

The Keller family is excellently portrayed by Doña Croll as Kate, Ray Shell as Joe, and Leemore Marrett Jr as Chris. The father-son dialogues in particular are outstanding, and Croll shines as the mother who desperately tries to keep her family together by refusing to admit her losses. Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Ashley Gerlach portray a decent Ann and George Deever, although every word that Jacobs speaks seems to be forced out, which leaves little room for emotional nuance. Strangely enough, the child who plays Bert is not credited at all, though his role is important: Bert provides the first hints that point to the underlying tragedy that bursts out in the final two acts.

Michael Buffong presents a well-balanced play, in which the humour in the first half stands in stark contrast to the tragedies after the intermission. Talawa’s contribution to the Arthur Miller centenary, albeit coincidental, is a worthwhile one.

K. Dihal

‘All My Sons’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 21st March; tickets can be booked via the theatre’s website. More information about Talawa Theatre Company can be found here.

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Oxford’s annual experimental music festival, audiograft, returns this year from March 11th-March 27th. With performances ranging from those involving newly constructed instruments, to an exploration of the sonic function of bells, this year’s festival promises an enormous variety of musical offerings. I spoke to festival co-curator Stephen Cornford about sound art and its explorations in this year’s programme.

When and why did audiograft start?

audiograft started in 2011, so this is our fifth year. It grew out of what used to be called Sonic Art Oxford, which was an annual event run on the campus of Oxford Brookes University. The idea of the festival was to take the interests and practices of the staff and students that make up the Sonic Art Research Unit, work that is rarely seen and heard in Oxford, and bring it to the public through collaboration with the great range of cultural venues that the city has.

audiograft runs for an unprecedented seventeen days this year, from March 11th to March 27th. What was the reasoning behind this extension?

Well, the core of the festival is still in the first week, between March 11th and 14th. That is when the majority of the events are, and when we expect the bulk of our audience. In fact, the after-party is even scheduled for the 14th.

But ever since we started programming exhibitions as part of the festival, it made sense for them to remain open for longer than a single week, so the installations will run until March 22nd. There are then also two extra concerts in this year’s festival, one on the 22nd, and one on the 27th, as we couldn’t squeeze all the ideas into our normal format of four gigs on consecutive nights. These extra concerts have been organised by members of SARU and are supported by the festival, but they could equally have been independent gigs.

Mario de Vega

Mario de Vega ‘Absentia’

Could you outline any current projects that you are undergoing as Research Fellow at the Sonic Art Research Unit (SARU) at Oxford Brookes University?

BMy own research is focused on using audio-visual media devices as productive rather than reproductive machines, finding ways for film projectors or record players to produce their own sound or image rather than playing back something which I have made. At the moment I’m doing a lot of work with CD players, which I am interested in because they are probably the last physical audio format. I am currently working on a film which is made by exposing 16mm film to the laser in a discman, turning it from an audio-reading apparatus into a visual writing machine.

Who decides upon which artists are exhibited at audiograft, and how is this decision made?

The festival is jointly curated by Paul Whitty and myself as well as Paul Dibley (Senior Lecturer in Electroacoustic Music) and Jo Ross (Director of Oxford Contemporary Music). The curatorial decisions reflect our own research interests, so, for example, Paul Whitty has invited contemporary British composers to write new pieces for an ensemble that he is part of. Similarly, I have invited artists who have developed uniquely individual approaches to the technology they perform with, so Maria Chavez, who will perform on Saturday 14th for example, has been quietly but very radically re-writing the rules of turntablism, and Andy Guhl, who is playing on Wednesday 11th, has re-purposed an optical scanner into an audio-visual feedback instrument. 

Maria Chavez © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Maria Chavez © Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Many of the artists and artworks exhibited at this year’s audiograft are complementary. Was it a conscious decision to show works that share common thematic elements or concepts?

As a general rule we have avoided thematic constrictions in the past, because I feel that they tend to lead to either too much of the same thing or to a pretence of unity amongst disparity. The complementary nature of Arno [Fabre] and Mario [De Vega]’s work at the OVADA show this year was deliberate, but we didn’t know about it when we initially approached them to work in the festival. It was during the discussion that these two works for bells were mentioned, and we thought it was a great opportunity to show them together. 

One of the central aims of audiograft is to bring sound art and experimental music to a wider audience. How do you hope to engage with members of the public that might not have previous exposure to these media?

We have always tried to show this sort of work in the most public and accessible way possible, without an overt sense that you need to understand its context or aims in order to enjoy it or participate in it. Experimental music and sound art can sometimes seem exclusive simply because they are such niche practices, but as long as you don’t approach them with preconceptions of what is and isn’t music, just with open ears, then there is no reason why anyone can’t enjoy them. It’s worth noting that young children have often been some of our most enthusiastic audience members, because they don’t seem to distinguish between noise and music; it’s all just sound to them. Generally, we have found audiences to be very open to cultural forms that they might not at first recognise.

The artworks on display are highly diverse, from video art to interactive sound sculptures. How important do you think it is to represent sound art’s different stylistic approaches, and different media?

Sound Art isn’t a singular thing. It isn’t a movement in that modernist sense. It is a field of practice made up by a very disparate set of artists and musicians, who, often for very different reasons, have decided that sound is the primary element of the work they are making. From the outset we never wanted to endorse one approach over another. The cultural world is divisive and likes to put things in increasingly small boxes, but doing so just alienates artists from one another and from their audiences, so we have actively tried to work against that.

Arno Fabre 'Cloche'

Arno Fabre ‘Cloche’

For much sound art, from installations to performances, the relationship between sound production and the acoustic characteristics of the space is essential. How does this influence festival organisation, from venues used to which works are shown in which locations?

We try to get hold of the best possible spaces for the work, though sometimes it doesn’t work out. We have been very lucky to be able to use the Holywell Music Room every year, which is a fantastic space for acoustic performances. It has an acoustic that doesn’t change the sounds produced in it, in the way that, say, a cathedral does, but still makes them heard equally throughout the space. But most of the artists we work with are very adaptable and prepared to work in a great variety of spaces. For example, this year we tried to get the crypt of Oxford Castle for Minoru Sato, whose piece Thermal Acoustics would have worked brilliantly in there, but they weren’t willing to have it running during guided tours, so it will now be shown in the less grand site of the OVADA warehouse. But the thing with acoustics is that sometimes even the most boring-looking space can sound amazing.

Are there any sound artists or musicians that you would be especially keen to have at audiograft in years to come?

I would like to invite Christof Migone and Otomo Yoshihide at some point in the future, but both would be dependent on having the budget to do so.

What does the future lay in store for audiograft? Do you hope that the festival will grow larger still in 2016?

To be honest, I don’t think the festival should grow at all. I think its current size is about right. Everything in this world is currently geared towards perpetual growth, which is foolish and unrealistic in my opinion. In terms of the festival, I hope that persistence and consistency are enough to keep it relevant and interesting to us as organisers, and to its local and national audiences.

J. Wadsworth

audiograft runs from the 11th-27th March; more details can be found on their website.

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On February 22nd, the 87th Academy Awards came and went, with a few surprises and, as always, a few controversies. Many rejoiced after the success of 12 Years a Slave and Mexican-Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o last year, announcing a major step forward in the ongoing war against Oscar discrimination. 2015’s choices, unfortunately, put an immediate stop to such celebrations: all eight Best Picture nominees have male protagonists; all twenty of the acting nominees were white.

This inequality and misrepresentation, an issue that the Academy urgently needs to address, is coupled with the limit in variation of the films on show. Take four of this year’s Best Picture nominees – American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Selma, and The Theory of Everything - all biopics, a genre that continues to be popular come awards season. All eight films were also, as is overwhelmingly the case (the occasional Amour aside) British or American.


These issues have been voiced time and time again, and will continue to be highlighted as long as the Academy’s choices remain so problematic and marginalising. This column takes a slightly more positive tack, focusing on one of the ceremony’s categories that is, in terms of diversity, ahead of the pack: the Academy Award for Live Action Short Film. In 2015, three of this category’s five films (Aya, Butter Lamp, and Parvaneh) are not in the English language; three have a female protagonist; and two have a non-white protagonist. This is precisely the kind of diversity that Oscar detractors are calling for in the feature film categories, yet those nominated here have been entirely ignored by the mainstream media. The notable absence begs the question, why is short film seen as so insignificant?

For one, the short film has been burdened with a reputation as a junior sibling to the feature film. Parallels exist here, it can be argued, in the worlds of literature and classical music, where the titans of each art form are predominantly celebrated for their novels and symphonies respectively. But, while masterful short-story writers and musical miniaturists are still widely admired, their works read or performed, those involved in short film face a rather less hopeful prospect. There are two choices: either use your short-film success as a springboard to move into the feature film realm; or remain in relative obscurity. This mentality distorts the fact that the short film is not an inherently lesser medium; it is a viable alternative to the feature film, an entirely different beast, with different conventions and different results.



Short film, then, is unfairly seen as a training ground for the feature directors of the future, amateurs, experimenters, and film school students. And with good reason; many previous winners of the Live Action Short Film, including Andrea Arnold (Wasp) and Michael McDonagh (Six Shooter), have experienced cinematic success, but only with their feature film debuts, Red Road and In Bruges respectively. Another route to take is adapting a short film for the big screen: this year’s Best Picture nominee Whiplash started life as a short film of the same name. The film’s electrifying direction, and J. K. Simmons’ powerhouse performance, would barely have had an audience if not for its feature-film incarnation. How many incredible performances, scripts, and so on, have slipped under the radar purely because the film they were attached to had a diminutive running time?

The principal reason for the short film’s struggle to appeal to the mainstream can be attributed to its lack – or, the perceived lack – of commercial viability. There exists the notion that short films are somehow worse value for money, because of their duration: short films aren’t popular because they’re short. But cinematic convention and media formats have evolved in a manner that marginalises the short film, if not rejecting it completely. While animated short films often find an enthusiastic audience as opening acts to animated feature-lengths – Pixar shorts being the obvious examples – this practice has long been extinct in the realm of live action. Similarly, home media such as DVDs, which could be – and, again in the case of Pixar, have been – used to release short film compilations, instead tend to hide short films away in the bonus material of feature films (such as Wasp, included as an extra on the DVD for Fish Tank, another film directed by Andrea Arnold). The argument, then, is still a cyclical one: short films aren’t popular because they’re not seen, because they’re not money-makers, because they’re not popular.

'Butter Lamp'

‘Butter Lamp’

But all is not lost for the short film; changes in viewing habits, catalysed in no small part by the rise of online streaming might be on the medium’s side. As we push further into the Netflix era, film viewing is moving away from a pay-per-view mentality. Charged a flat rate for a month’s worth of movies, we no longer experience the same opportunity cost that faces us when purchasing cinema tickets or DVDs. This is not the only advantage; as online streaming and smart TVs become the norm, film watching is becoming increasingly fragmented and disrupted. Shorter-duration visual media is well suited to this change. Sites like Netflix, Love Film, and Mubi – an alternative streaming site that focuses on independent and foreign film – can change the way that we view short film, in a manner that would be mutually beneficial. By giving viewers the opportunity to test the water, to have a feel for what short film is and does, these sites can effect a tectonic shift in the cinematic landscape.

This week’s column, then, is not so much about Film in Oxford, but about film conspicuously not in Oxford. While the city’s thriving student film scene produces many excellent short films each year, feature-length films continue to fill its cinemas. Although it remains exceptional, cinemas elsewhere do show compilations of short films; Bristol’s Watershed screened all of this year’s Live Action Short Film nominees, for example. We can hope that Oxford’s two independent cinemas, the Phoenix Picturehouse and the Ultimate Picture Palace, might follow suit in future. In this case, the issue of how much short films are ‘worth’ is turned on its head: why not watch five films for the price of one?

For those wishing to watch more short films, previous Academy Award nominees are listed here, from Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Peter Capaldi (yes, the current Doctor Who), to West Bank Storyhttp, a parody musical and irreverent comment on the Israel-Palestine conflict. While some of the links given are unfortunately broken, the list nonetheless serves as a suitable starting point from which to move on to countless other short films, scattered across YouTube and Vimeo, waiting to be discovered.

J. Wadsworth

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Focus on a square in part of a Francis Bacon painting. Now describe it with your right elbow.

This is just one of many tasks that Wayne McGregor asked his dancers to ‘solve’ as part of the preparation for Atomos, a work that concerns itself with the atomisation of the body, breaking it down into its constituent components and emphasising its flexibility, in terms of both identity and lithe physicality. The piece’s performers are encouraged to interact in diverse and often unexpected ways: now contorted, a hand holding another’s foot while caught in a twisted stance; now impulsive, a rush of kisses on a bare leg. In one section, flashing lights illuminated alternate halves of the now-stationary dancers, splitting each body into two. The flickering shadows present here suggested minute movement when none was present, a decidedly disconcerting effect. The choreographic choices can in every case be traced back to McGregor’s philosophy: that the body does not finish at the skin; that the self is known and experienced with others, as presences or absences.


To elaborate on the latter notion, Atomos’s programme notes boast that McGregor ‘manipulates and organises’ bodies, a claim confirmed by the varying dissections of the ten-strong ensemble over the course of the work. Each dancer has the opportunity to take centre-stage, both alone and as part of a duo, while the remainder of the piece’s duration is shared between loose group work and more precisely choreographed trios, quartets and quintets. Often, such separation seemed to harbour further meaning. A passage featuring the five male and five female dancers segregated by sex, confined to opposite sides of the stage, before intermingling could quite readily be interpreted as a comment on the fluidity of gender, unsurprising for an artist that probes the edges of the individual and the collective.


Partway through the work, several television-like screens were lowered, suspended from the roof of the stage as if forming a child’s mobile. The screens’ visuals varied greatly in content, from abstract shapes to cityscapes, but rarely was there a discernible connection between the displays and the movement onstage. On the rare occasion that a relationship could be perceived between the two, though, it proved highly effective; in one instance, the screens’ streams of numbers were complemented by the dancers’ uttered gibberish. Or, at least, such was the overall result. One was unable to isolate the (possibly coherent) vocalisations of individual dancers, perhaps suggesting that, in an age of mass data, the babble of binary code is obscuring messages of greater import. Or is this just another example of McGregor’s favoured atomisation, breaking words into syllables and information into digits?


The score, a collaboration between composer Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie, a member of ambient group Stars of the Lid, gave the impression of a loose collection of excerpts rather than of a composed whole. The work’s default sonic mode was an aquatic soundworld – all reverberation and string harmonics – reminiscent of Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós, or much of the Stars of the Lid’s back catalogue. Elsewhere, the score employed Shostakovich-esque strings, or minimalistic piano parts that clinked and shimmered like Glass. While the sections of Atomos’s choreography were loosely related to the movement from one extract to another, the divisions were neither fluid enough to allow for gradual evolution, nor sudden enough to ensure a startling difference.

The question that highly conceptualised dance pieces like Atomos must face is, how does the concept translate to the stage? Is the work as compelling as the ideas that lie behind it? In this case, the result was that there was too much on offer visually at any given moment. Often, one was forced to look in a single direction, or follow an individual dancer, while disregarding all others. While this might well be McGregor’s intention (and it would indeed be fitting) it became frustrating, and was indicative of the work’s shortcomings as a whole. Despite phenomenal dancing and some electrifying choreography, it was difficult to shake the feeling that Atomos would have benefitted from a greater degree of overall coherence, its chaotic atoms combining to create a more stable structure.

J. Wadsworth

For more information about Atomos, please visit the Oxford Playhouse website.

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