Henham Park is not an easily accessible destination for the carless. The Southwold site is nestled in the furthest reaches of Suffolk, and it took me three buses, two trains and one precarious ramble down the motorway to reach it last Friday, when I travelled up from South London for the weekend of indie music, four-quid lattes and glitter facepaint that is Latitude Festival. The park’s lush foliage and seaside-fresh air make it hard to fault its isolation – a thought I took comfort in as I wrestled my tent into position some two hours later than I’d anticipated and dashed off to the press tent to assess the weekend dance line-up.
Latitude trumpets itself as ‘much more than a music festival’, and it’s one of the few on the scene in which the other offerings – dance, literature, poetry, theatre, comedy, cabaret – really do share the spotlight with the music. (Music is the biggest single component, though, and the bands drawn in are hardly small fry – this year’s headliners were Alt-J, Portishead and Noel Gallagher.) The dance docket is an enviable one: past years have featured the likes of English National Ballet and Hofesh Shechter Company, and the 2015 programme had Rambert in the banner spot.
I’d earmarked time for the four major dance shows scheduled during my two-night stay, but this still left me with hours to fill for each day and a dozen-odd choices to fill each one with. Luckily, the site isn’t huge – you can walk from one end of the arena grounds to the other in 15 minutes – so dashing between stages, or even splitting a set between two, is doable. (Consider this for scale: Latitude has around 20 venues compared to Glastonbury’s 100; capacity is somewhere around 35,000, a far cry from Glasto’s 175,000.) With this in mind, I started plotting. First up on the agenda: East London Dance’s Club Life.
A luminous lake separates the campgrounds from the festival pitch, and it’s a treat to watch tides of people emerge from the forest and wash over the bridge into the arena, where open-air stages and giant marquees jostle for position with stalls purveying everything from coconut water and flower garlands to chair massages, vegan nachos and organic oatmeal. Latitude’s long been hailed as a gentle, dare I say civil, alternative to the wild debauchery of big commercial carnivals like V Festival. The atmosphere is still spirited and carefree, but this freewheeling fun comes with a distinct middle-class twist: children abound, for one thing, and there’s a big emphasis on sustainability (think ‘green’ rather than ‘hippie’). This year’s media partner, the New Statesmen, threw an already left-leaning crowd’s political sensibilities into even sharper relief: gripes over the recent election results peppered a not-inconsiderable amount of the comedy sets and literary presentations I attended.
I would have paused to soak in the sight of my fellow revellers descending on the festival arena during my initial entry – they cut a striking figure against Friday’s fiery sunset – but I’d been warned the tent hosting the East London Dance performance would fill up quickly, and indeed a 30-deep queue awaited me when I arrived. The piece kicked off ten minutes late to accommodate all the eager viewers, but the wait was well worth it – it turned out to be one of the most joyful performances I saw all weekend, an energetic whirl of swishing skirts and showboating smiles, all set to the synth-enhanced stylings of an on-stage band.
The piece loosely charts the history of club music, the dancers ushering in one era-focused segment after another (mid-century bops, 60s Northern Soul, 90s house). It was good fun watching the different styles feed into one another: ponytailed girls swinging in saddle shoes made way for disco-dancing divas, who then passed the baton onto bucket-hat-clad breakdancers who drew huge whoops from the crowd for their hazardous headslides and handstands. The sass was strong and the dancers’ elation evident – an altogether jubilant experience.
I came away from the piece inspired to move and did just that, first at Alt-J’s electro set, and later in the Faraway Forest, a phantasmagoric constellation of flora and fairy lights housing several late-night party tents.
While my glitter-filled get-down in the Forest sated my craving to groove Friday night, it quashed any desire I might have had to join one of Saturday’s early-morning dance classes hosted by DanceEast. Instead, I swung by the lake to check out the swimming hole, a new addition for 2015. (Limited showering facilities plus three days of blazing sunshine meant this was one of the weekend’s most consistently crowded sites.)
Two band sets, a feminist comedy show and a taco salad later, I headed back towards the water, this time to perch in front of the Waterfront Stage for Rambert’s performance of Christopher Bruce’s Rooster. The floating stage is one of the festival’s loveliest sights to behold, surrounded as it is by glittering water, pastel lilypads and breeze-blown reeds. Like East London Dance’s show, Rambert’s was hotly anticipated – both riverbanks as well as the nearby bridge were packed with people as the dancers took to the stage.
I’d wondered whether Rooster, at just half an hour long, would be too bitty a choice to carry to primetime Saturday slot, but what it lacks in length the bite-size piece soon proved it makes up for in personality. The rascally romp, which weaves together several slinky skits, each set to a different Rolling Stones song, had the crowd clapping along from its jazzy first hip roll. Miguel Altunaga embraced a delightful Jagger swagger for his role as the titular neck-pecking cockerel, and there was plenty of verve among the other nine dancers too, who included crowd favourites like Dane Hurst, Hannah Rudd and Simone Damberg Würtz. Together they waltzed lyrically to “Lady Jane,” delivered whip-fast turns to “Not Fade Away,” strutted suggestively to “Paint It Black.”
Watching the dancers mill on the side of the wingless stage in between numbers, I was struck anew by how much formality an open-air stage strips away. Free from the confines of the theatre (both literal and figurative), a dance piece becomes more of a happening than a performance; viewers can dip in and out as they please, and the behind-the-scenes aspects lose some of their mystery, making for an altogether more casual (and if you’re not au fait with much dance, more accessible) event. I loved the way Rooster’s insouciant air jibed with the festival’s easygoing vibe. I only wish Rambert’s dancers had had more room to furnish the choreography with the sweeping bigness they were so clearly itching to deliver; the modest stage did have the unfortunate effect of visibly restraining them (though I don’t blame them for being cautious – the threat of water is all around, after all).
After the show ended, I watched the end of José González’s set at the Obelisk Arena before making my way to the press tent, where I caught up with Tania Harrison, Latitude’s arts curator. She was pleased Rooster had drawn in such a large crowd, noting that she’d pushed to include it in the line-up for that very reason: “You can’t beat the Rolling Stones!”
I asked her about the two dance shows lined up for Sunday: a selection of pieces from the grand finalists of the 2015 BBC Young Dancer competition, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Frame[d], performed by National Youth Dance Company. What had prompted her to devote such a large portion of the bill to teenage dancers? “One of my big goals this year was to choose pieces that were relatable to all kinds of people, even those who don’t have a lot of familiarity with dance,” she answered. “Both the BBC and NYDC dancers have a diverse range of backgrounds between them, and their work showcases this. You don’t need any kind of prior knowledge to enjoy the pieces or relate to them.”
We spent a few more minutes chatting before Harrison had to avail herself for another interview. I had just enough time to grab a drink on my way back to Obelisk for performances by Laura Marling and Portishead. Inspired once again to dance the night away, I whittled away the last hours of the day at a bouncy cabaret before falling asleep in front of a campfire.
I woke up Sunday morning to a smattering of rain and rumours that Thom Yorke and Ed Sheeran had played a surprise guest set at precisely the time I was crooning along to a drag queen’s operatic rendering of “Colors of the Wind.” No regrets there.
The rain quickly made way for sunshine, a development that will have had the day’s dancers exhaling in relief (as both Sunday shows were outdoor performances). On my way to grab breakfast I glimpsed a cluster of NYDC members lugging some giant steel frames onto the Waterfront Stage. Jane Hackett, the company’s director, had expressed a worry that this might be a difficult task when I interviewed her a week ahead of the festival, but the assembly appeared to be under control, the frames fenced in by a sturdy barrier of speakers and stage lights.
I made a point to pop by the DanceEast tent again, this time to join the tail-end of a contemporary class, before settling into the Literary Arena for a few poetry readings and author conversations that would see me through to the afternoon. A quick sandwich from the Greenpeace tent and it was back over the bridge to see the BBC Young Dancer bill, a showcase of nine assorted solos and duets performed by the competition’s finalists.
Connor Scott, winner of the 2015 title, kicked things off with a tight little contemporary number full of snaking arms and slithery floorwork. Choreographed by Rambert’s Patricia Okenwa, the piece demanded a precise balance of sharpness and fluidity – something Scott happily and expertly delivered. He returned twice more to the stage over the bill, while runners-up Vidya Patel, Keiran Lai and Harry Barnes performed two pieces each.
Lai’s self-choreographed hip-hop solo was a big highlight, what with its electric footwork and mesmerising synth track, as were both of Barnes’ offerings – the second, in which Barnes mimed, popped and locked to a cheesy disco song, revealed a natural flair for comedic timing. Meanwhile, Patel’s second piece, a South Asian duet, made prudent use of her strong posture and excellent rhythm – she even took over percussion for the accompanying band at a few junctures, first with the bangles on her feet and later with her vocals.
Some ominous clouds rolled in as NYDC took the stage, but few in the crowd budged; the sight of 38 dancers and three hulking metal structures crammed onto the waterfront was too intriguing. Hackett had noted in our interview that the space would be “a tough [one] to navigate,” that the dancers would “have to be much stronger in certain ways” to budget their limited legroom and deflect the distractions bound to abound, but budget and deflect they did – and admirably. I was especially impressed by the way they held their concentration: at no point did anybody appear thrown by the bursts of music blasting from nearby tents or the sudden gusts of wind the afternoon tossed up.
Cherkaoui has made a career out of mixing and matching different styles – Hackett likens him to an “editor” who “sets tasks…and pieces together the outcome” – and his choreography for Frame[d] is as textured it comes, drawing on elements of martial arts, b-boying, modern dance and even spoken word. The piece is segmented into wildly different vignettes: the dancers kneel and meditatively traces shapes onto the stage with their hands; they karate-punch the air, exhaling in sync with a war drum; they intone a collective monologue about neurobiology and how, physically speaking, “there’s no such thing as the independent self.” The work meanders at times, but there’s a lot to praise, particularly Cherkaoui’s ordered sense of chaos: both the choreography and staging expertly tread the line between hectic and untidy. The frames proved helpful on this front, containing and partitioning the dancers where necessary.
A full evening of music, poetry and cabaret awaited revellers on Sunday night, but my weekend at Latitude wound down following that afternoon’s dance bill. After a struggle with my tent (turns out the pop-down part is a lot harder than the pop-up part), I wiped off my facepaint and steeled myself for the impending schlep through East Anglia. My clothes were grimy and my cheeks sunburned, but my heart was full – a decent trade-off in my book.
This was my second time attending Latitude in five years, and I’d like to make it back before another half decade goes by, particularly if the organisers continue to pursue so robust a dance offering.
I think I’ll try to get a ride next time, though.