Dance and Physical Theatre

in a Fringe that has been criticised for high prices and a lacklustre selection, which of these venues can claim to be 2007's definitive dance centre?

Feature by Gareth K Vile | 08 Sep 2007

Three venues stood out for dance at this year's Fringe Festival: Aurora Nova, Zoo Southside and, predictably, Dance Base. It was not so much that these were the only spaces offering a variety of movement-based inspired treats and insipid miseries, but that each venue demonstrated a consistent commitment to physical theatre, developed a distinctive identity and promoted a range of genres. However, in a Fringe that has been criticised for high prices and a lacklustre selection, which of these venues can claim to be 2007's definitive dance centre?

Aurora Nova invented the purpose driven programme back in 2001, and has been winning awards ever since. This year, both Victoria - a solo study of old age - and Woyzeck - a restaging of one of modern theatre's most elusive pieces - have won Herald Angels. Yet this year, its programme seemed stretched, with works like Andrew Dawson's charming and slight Leitmotif overshadowed by the grandeur of the venue and Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas' presentation of Incarnat appeared to be more concerned with spectacle than content. Perhaps a victim of its own success, the large programme makes it harder to identify a theme or be sure of the quality: and in physical theatre, there is always a danger that a work will launch itself into the incomprehensible.

Dance Base countered this problem with a small season of four mixed bills. Many newspapers reviewed the multiple acts as if they were a single event. This played to the venue's advantage, since only two of the bills were consistently entertaining - Timeless (another Herald Angel winner) and Global. That said, it was easy to spot the theme of the programme: small scale works at the boundaries of dance convention, drawing on the disciplines of traditional forms.

Unlike the other two venues, Zoo Southside was not dedicated exclusively to physical theatre - other events included a magic show! It did boast an experimental work in the form of Druthers, although the majority of its dance companies tended towards the populist. Scotland's own X-Factor performed lively contemporary and 2Faced breakdanced through a high-octane hour. While hardly as focused as Dance Base's programme, Zoo's shows were crowd-pleasing and diverse, incorporating many of the major genres.

Across the board, certain themes emerged. Breakdance is becoming to contemporary what reggae used to be to punk: a crowd pleasing change of pace that is flung in regardless of its relevance to the content. Of course, the real reason for breaking's popularity is that it attracts boys to dance, and HipHopScotch (Dance Base) and 2Faced are simply the concert wing of classes. On the other hand, Action Reaction (DB) and Tunnel Vision (Zoo) had less excuse. Both of these were more interested in high drama then expressiveness, and set against the integrated hip-hop context of Chickenshed's As the Mother of a Brown Boy, they were flashy and hollow.

Ballet - alongside other traditional forms - seemed to be making a comeback as a basis for many pieces. X-Factor's Morceaux Choisis, Duo by the Curve Foundation and the Cape Dance Company (Zoo) all revealed a debt to the plie and battement. Unsurprisingly, the Global bill at Dance Base connected this to other international systems - Preyi Shrikumar is essentially a classical Indian dancer, although her inclusion in the bill reflected on the more radical explorations of Kitt Johnson, settling it in an older continuum.

Both Aurora Nova and Dance Base gave evidence of the dangers of physical theatre's self-absorption. At Dance Base Stephen Pelton's A Hundred Miles was an appropriation of a young woman's experience by a man at the very edge of his dance career, and was more South Park camp than serious transgender experimentation, while Madame Bazie (Natasha Gilmore) looked like an unsteady improvisation. Over at Aurora Nova, the hero of Orpheus wore a wig that made him look like Worzel Gummidge and his mediocre quality of movement lent his surrealistic exploits an aura of Vic Reeves. Incarnat got obsessed with blood - after a promising start, it became an atrocity exhibition, as bottles of tomato sauce were splashed about stage and artists.

Yet many individual performances proved dance's supreme eloquence. The aforementioned Timeless housed two works that were not only individually stunning, but combined to a greater whole. Hawkins and Payne-Myers' Muscular Memory Lane and Beth Cassani's 13 attracted attention because of the performers' ages - Cassani used her two young sons, twelve and fourteen, to discuss young manhood, and eighty year-old Diana Payne-Myers astonished with her fancy footwork and serene expression. Through juxtaposition, dry humour and duets, both pieces said something original about time and growth, and commented on each other. In Zeitgeist, Andrew Dawson's deceptively simple monologues were interspersed with minimal dances that fleshed out his tentative and oblique character. And Chickenshed pulled out all the stops to leave an audience in tears: their recreation of the life and death of an ex-company member asked far more questions than it answered about the experience of institutional racism, but was merciless in its use of video, music, singing and sampled conversations to provoke emotions.

Ultimately, it is impossible to say which of the three venues provided the best programme: subjectivity comes into play more frequently in physical theatre, where one person's incomprehensible shambles could be another's poignant revelation.

That said, it is Zoo Southside that most consistently served up engaging and palatal shows. Rarely heading out into the abstract or dangerous, their dance companies integrated the avant-garde into the accessible: 2Faced's State of Matter did not say much, but said it with libidinous dynamism; Cape Dance Company drummed their way through wry and intense examinations of community, honouring their African roots and their balletic discipline; X-Factor were that rare beast - a contemporary company that celebrated the uncomplicated joy of physicality. For the casual viewer, Zoo delivered approachable quality works.

Dance Base fielded two of the best programmes in the Festival - Timeless and Global. In Kitt Johnson, it had a genuine original, as Rankefod twisted the body into the instrument of evolution, frightening and awesome. Yet Quantum was a weak selection, and Stratospheric erratic. Excluding HipHopScotch, which was their family show, Dance Base was catering to a minority audience, the serious balletomane. As such, it was rewarding, but each show should be approached with caution.

Aurora Nova has far too much ballast in its programme. Its strategy might be to include as much as possible from the weird and wonderful edges of the performance art world - even stretching the definition to include monologues and site-specific works. Out of these come some clear winners, but, more than any other venue, Aurora Nova is patchy and the prospective audience needs to keep an eye on the reviews.

Finally, a word about the Festival itself. While Glasgow merrily supports physical theatre all year round, there is a danger that the Fringe presents the only opportunity for Edinburgh to see the extremes. Two of these venues made an effort to support local artists, leaving behind a legacy for the rest of the year. The Fringe may not be the best place to see physical theatre: too much extremity in one month can be suffocating. After a week of humans as insects, bodies being pulled into shapes beyond imagination and myths enacted in half-gloom and silence, reality can take on a strange complexion.