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Dance at Edinburgh 2009

Posted on September 23, 2010

Robert Penman and Zoë Anderson attended some of the performances offered on the 2009 Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe Festival.

Here are their thoughts on what they saw:

Visiting the Edinburgh festivals is like gathering wild flowers – you never quite know what to expect or what you are going to get. Among the hundreds of dance and physical theatre offerings Rannel, Chickenshed and Michael Clark provided some unlikely blooms, with Scottish Dance Theatre adding reliable native colour. That’s the pleasure and to some extent the point of the exercise: mishmash and/or a celebration. Both? It is never quite clear which, as the city generously opens every conceivable space to new comers and regulars.

This year my visit began with a late night show by avant-garde Australians, Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, who according their publicity are “infamous” back home. (There is probably a dissertation to be written on dance and infamy). It was certainly dance after the watershed insofar as the performers of Zeitgeist were near naked for much of the time. But that wasn’t the point: very effectively they combined the focus of butoh with the flamboyance and provocation of burlesque and the avant-garde as they danced and sang their way through their account of Lynne Bradley’s choreography constructed in mercifully short scenes – mercifully short because the seating was diabolical.

According to Bradley’s notes the seven episodes are both a retrospective of her work and a commentary on “how we as human beings are interacting with ourselves, each other and the big issues of our age”. This was possibly slightly ambitious, even a tad pretentious, but the audience generously expressed its appreciation of the performance.

Ups and Downs and Whoopsie Daisies performed by Robbie Synge and Julie Cleves was an equally unexpected pleasure. There was no attempt to change the world, and for Cleves standing up would be a bonus. Instead, she was rooted to the floor, muttering “Somewhere over the rainbow…” while her partner manically folded little white squares as displacement therapy. So began an intriguing duet in which he glided, and turned and skipped and folded himself against her frame. This is contact improvisation and release technique, effectively practised by two remarkably different bodies. She physically and metaphorically provided the foundation and counterweight to his lyrical performance. And within the limits of her own movement vocabulary she too bravely fell and rolled her frame to significant effect, surrounded by the machinery on which her life depends, as a Noguchi-like testimony to her disabilities. It is a heroic and emotional journey from hope to rage to final resolution. If there was a weakness it was the words.

Rannel Theatre Company most definitely knew what to do with words on stage. Founded by JoeyD (no relation to Jonzi D, although he likes what they do) and Matt Bailley, the company brought their debut show – Fhlip Fhlop: Everything Happens on the Break – to the Fringe, where it was awarded five stars. As two would be decorators, all that the lads were trying to do was paint their posh friend’s flat, a simple enough job you would have thought. But their shared love of beat box, MC-ing and hip hop kept getting in the way. As the Laurel and Hardy of hip hop they got badly distracted, and after an hour crept away, were still cool with the job undone. Before that, though, their physical dexterity, timing, gamesmanship, stagecraft (this is a sophisticated show) and verbal badinage kept the Edinburgh audience well amused.

On a darker note, Chickenshed, the performance company that works with the disabled and disadvantaged in north London, successfully brought Crime of the Century to the attention of Edinburgh audiences. Set against a London skyline, the descent into knife crime was portrayed in imaginatively structured and tightly edited sequences. The cast have insider knowledge of the violence that blights their neighbourhoods, and any lack of maturity was compensated for by their bravura physical performances and commitment to the struggle. The sense of ownership was palpable. If only they had listened to mother. And where was dad when their lads were going to prison or dying on the streets?

More traditional fare was on offer from Scottish Dance Theatre in its two-week residency at Zoo Southside. I caught Luxuria (2005), which is fast becoming the company’s award winning signature work. Choreographer Liv Lorent’s passionate, if slightly wayward and idiosyncratic dance vocabulary sits comfortably on the company’s accomplished contemporary dancers. The boy meets girl romance was by no means simple, as the tightly woven choreography tracked an emotionally charged journey, which the women for the most part seem to be leading. The work also benefits from Paul Shriek’s stylish and romantic costumes: for the women sculpted oval-hooped skirts (under which the men occasionally disappear) and simple shifts when the choreography demanded it; for the men elegantly decorated tunics. Luxuria is a charming education for the senses, which ends happily ever after, even for the one forlorn outsider.

Happy ever after is definitely not what Michael Clark does in his most recent work, come, been and gone, presented as part of the International Festival. But what arrived in Edinburgh was not the work that departed for Venice in June, as Clark continues to edit and add sections. Any review must therefore necessarily be provisional. The dancers looked comfortable in the final section, which they know well and danced confidently, but in other sections appeared far less certain with the new material. The revival of the “needle” solo he made for himself on Kate Coyne, in which she wears a body stocking covered in syringes, appeared misplaced even in terms of its design and urgently needs editing. come been and gone is a work in progress, but at this point what can be said for certain?It is normal to present Clark as the enfant terrible of the ballet world, and it is an image that he cultivates with his assortment of favourite rock bands. But there is no doubt that he remains fascinated with the way in which dance technique generates new movement ideas – and it is one of his great strengths. He keeps showing us carefully constructed finely honed port de bras, clearly articulated imaginative transitions through open and crossed lines, random pirouettes and ornamented footwork with intricate beats. Even his dancers maintain a certain detachment from one another and from the audience; sure, they dance duets and trios and quartets, but these are formal conceits not emotional stories. This is Clark as classicist and iconoclast, re-inventing the form for a generation nurtured on rock music. Having successfully completed his Stravinsky cycle and, for come been and gone, revisited his roots in rock music, where does he go? It is story worth watching.
Robert Penman

There was a classic Edinburgh moment at one of Dance Base’s Heads Up shows, an unexpected marvel. Scotland’s national centre for dance becomes a venue during the Fringe, but besides its own performances, it promotes other peoples. Heads Up is a pick of the Fringe, a changing programme of extracts from other shows. The afternoon I went, they also had Harriet Macauley, from the British company Pair Dance. Macauley didn’t really fit the brief for Heads Up: she didn’t have a show on the Fringe, she was just passing through. But she was superb.

Macauley’s solo has the theme of racism in the dance world. As a black dancer, she is expected to have, and to demonstrate, African roots. A voiceover expresses surprise that she’s sticking to pure contemporary dance. Against these spoken assumptions, Macauley goes on dancing, edging along a line of pink feathers. Her political point is simply made; her dancing is sumptuous. Macauley can unfold a high extension with lavish ease, then arch into a backbend without changing gears. The flow of movement is as complete and satisfying as that of a cat stretching itself in the sun.

The same afternoon, Dance Base director Morag Deyes had grabbed hoofer Movin’ Melvin Brown from busking in the Grassmarket, to show off his exuberant shimmies.  It’s a good reminder of the range of dance that can show up in Edinburgh.

At The Zoo, Helix Dance showed Four Quarters, a mixed bill of dance. The Great Escape, a solo by company director Isabel Cohen, is by far the strongest item. Dressed in a PVC corset and kneepads, Cohen starts out with dance standup: she admits that the Fringe average of ten people in the audience matches the usual average for contemporary dance. Then she breaks down those ten people: representatives from the venue, the choreographer’s parents, right down to the two men in dirty raincoats. “My parents wish I was wearing more. The men in raincoats wish I was wearing less.” As she speaks, Cohen starts to move. Her steps reach and yearn, while her patter analyses the difficulties of a dance career. She struggles to explain why it’s worth it, while her movement shows exactly why she keeps doing it.  It’s a witty, sharply observed solo, nicely pitched to appeal to both a general and a dance audience.

On the same bill, Alex Broadie’s All ends in tears is a squabbling duet. Cohen and Broadie fight over pillows, show off, dare each other. Pushing and shoving becomes walloping; both characters are ready to go too far. They might be a couple, or arguing siblings. Without pinning it down, Broadie catches the competitive dynamics of the relationship. The other two quarters are weaker. Steve Johnstone’s I’ve been waiting is a generic contemporary trio, full of repetitive gestures. Shahla Tarrant’s Where the Humans Eat is a drama that aims for ambiguity but comes out vague.

Darren Johnston’s Ousia is as much installation as dance. His company Array presented the piece at Dance Base@ Out of the Blue Drill Hall, a spinoff from the main Dance Base venue. To get to the performance, the audience is led through corridors of fog. The Drill Hall’s narrow brick corridors are filled with dry ice, dimly lit with blue fluorescent lamps. At last, you push past heavy curtains to reach a white box of a room. Behind a gauze screen, there’s a second white room, containing dancer Chiharu Otake.

Dressed in a white t-shirt, she dances with her back to us. Beyond her, a film screen shows a woman – Otake again? – dancing in a tutu. As Johnston’s electronic music crackles and hums, Otake stalks through angular poses or echoes the academic steps of her filmed double.

Ousia is odd, inventive and disorientating. Just as Johnston leads his audience through fog and curtains, he veils the dancing with gauze and strobe lighting. At one point, the flashing, flickering lights make it look as though the two screens are coming closer, a ghostly room accelerating towards its audience.

Zoë Anderson

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