When I first started reviewing dance at Edinburgh, there was hardly any inducement to look beyond the official festival. Maybe I’m exaggerating the memory, but two or more decades ago, the fringe seemed to be swamped by theatre, comedy and music: of the few dance events that found their way into the mix, most were student shows or just too random to write about.
Now, there’s no question that the fringe has become a serious platform for dance, and a serious contender for review space. A number of high-profile artists opt to come to the festival each year, attracted not only by the promise of new audiences but the opportunity of a long-running season. In the independent dance sector, performance patterns are typically sporadic, comprising a scattering of tour dates with only one or two nights in the same theatre. At Edinburgh, however, one show may get up to a month’s continuous run, giving performers and choreographers a rare opportunity to bed down and develop their material. Ben Duke, for instance, is presenting a four-week run of his solo show, Paradise Lost. And while Duke looked exhausted when I bumped into him after a performance last week, he was very happy at the way he’d been able to develop the work since it premiered in London back in May.
Of course, it’s a financial risk coming to Edinburgh, but dance artists are gaining the benefit of canny marketing. Venues such as Dance Base, Summerhall and the Zoo group, which have presented their own mini-dance programmes for several years, are now recognisable destinations for audiences seeking out dance on the fringe. Regional agencies such as the Welsh Coreo Cymr are also promoting their own dance strand, and for the first time this year, the Place (one of London’s key dance theatres) has a presence in Edinburgh. Taking over a slot at the Summerhall venue, the Place is presenting a trio of its own associate artists, and, with a view to raising the profile of the art form in general, is also sponsoring a new dance category in the Total Theatre awards.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that the Place is choosing to make its debut splash with some of the less overtly dancey pieces in its portfolio. Anyone trying to categorise its three Summerhall presentations – Duke’s Paradise Lost, Vera Tussing’s T-Danceand Igor and Moreno’s Idiot-Syncrasy – might be tempted to describe them as physical theatre, comedy or performance art rather than dance, given that there’s barely a pointed foot or a pirouette to be seen in any of the pieces.
Yet all three are works that even the most step-hungry purist should try to see. Duke’s solo may be a virtuosic feat of language, but it’s also shaped by a distinctive dance sensibility. And while the other two works are in some ways very minimal, very conceptual, both engage in a fascinating exploration of what it means to watch and perform dance, what it means to move and be moved.
On paper, it’s all too easy to reduce the offbeat charm of Tussing’s T-Dance to a parody of playschool experimentation. The four dancers greet us pleasantly as we come into the auditorium (a sure sign of participation to come) and the choreography they perform is organised around the most basic-looking tasks. One section requires them to move together as a group while keeping four bamboo sticks wedged between their bodies; another has them taking it in turns to be lifted by each other, and then inviting members of the audience to be lifted too. One key sequence involves the performers touching or manoeuvering each other, while requesting individual audience members to imagine each tactile experience occurring in their own body. As one dancer grazes his chin along another’s arm, he singles out “the woman in the third row with the pink shirt” to imagine the feel of his “three-day beard”; a second woman is invited to imagine her ears being pulled as if by heavy earrings; a man is offered the chance to feel as if rain is pattering on his shoulders.
What elevates the work from earnest workshop to theatre is the vivid quality of the performers’ attention, and the quiet, commanding skill with which they draw us into a physical empathy with them. Such is the clarity of their focus that they can make us sense the pressure and sharpness of the sticks wedged against their arms, the crazy coordination involved in keeping the sticks in place while they circle, jump and pace the stage. They give us a lurch and a lift in our own stomachs when they throw each other into “rollercoaster lifts”. And they galvanise an impressive level of enthusiasm among the audience when it comes to being singled out for participation.
At a basic level, all dance performance operates through kinetic communication, through an often unconscious transmission of rhythm, shape and sensation from performer to viewer. In Tussing’s work, however, that sensory sharing becomes the deliberate point. And she makes it happen so dextrously, so benignly that she sends us out of the theatre feeling unnaturally alert and refreshed.
If the aims of T-Dance are modestly scaled: Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas say that when they set out to create Idiot-Syncrasy they wanted to “change the world”. And in a curious way, while the work lives up (or down) to its title – with the two men often just bouncing or spinning together like hyperactive kids – it also brushes against important ideas.
We’re disarmed by the two men almost from the outset as, dressed in jeans and anoraks and standing awkwardly side by side, they suddenly open their mouths and start to sing – beautiful two-part harmonies, snatches of middle European folk songs that are almost painfully sweet to listen to. Like the performers in T-Dance, they are charmingly engaging as individuals: Moreno with his dark trimmed beard and satiric twinkle, Igor more wide-eyed and serious. And they keep us engaged as, gradually, they start to rock on the balls of their feet, and accelerate the rocking into a bounce. Soon they are bouncing as if they’re never going to stop, and while they no longer have any spare breath for singing, they’re starting to do all kinds of other things.
They’re stripping down to shorts and T-shirts (Igor folding his clothes neatly and tutting over Moreno’s slovenly heap); they’re bouncing in choreographed formation on stage, and they’re bouncing all through the auditorium. Still bouncing, they’re pouring out shots of whisky for each other and they’re getting the rest of us to drink along too.
Around 30 minutes into the show, everyone is loving Igor and Moreno, and some of the audience are cheering them along. But different tensions and nuances also filter into the material. I notice that when just one of the men bounces up to my seat he seems puppyishly friendly, but when they’re both bouncing in front of me, it feels more intimidating. A degree of competition is develops between them, and as the physical effort becomes more gruelling, they clench their fists, harden their smiles, and the bouncing feels less of a game than a gladiatorial challenge.
There’s a shift, too, when the men finally stop bouncing and start to spin, and when the thread of communication between us and them is suddenly broken. As the spin gathers speed and they’re clutching each other for safety, they’re focused only on their shared effort to survive. And even when they emerge from the spin and refocus on the audience, something in the theatre has changed. For the first time in this show, we’re no longer sharing the same space as the performers: Igor and Moreno have gone deep into a world of physical endurance, but we’ve remained sitting outside and the expression with which they now look at us is no longer welcoming, but close to reproachful.
Idiot-Syncrasy is a warm, fabulous and funny show, but it also makes us vividly and unsettlingly aware of the altered states that we and the dancers can undergo during the course of a performance. There may be little more than bouncing in Igor and Moreno’s choreography, but it still makes absolute sense that in the nominations for this year’s Total theatre awards, they appear on the shortlist for dance.
• All three shows continue at Summerhall, Edinburgh. T-Dance and Paradise Lost continue until 30 August. Idiot-Syncrasy until 29 August. Box office: 0131-560 1580.