Outdoor audience on socially distanced seats looking at the lit MultiStory stage, Edinburgh Castle in the background


Edinburgh Festivals Diary, August 2021

Read Icon Read
Time Icon Pink 10 min
The purpose-built MultiStory stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2021. Photo © Alix McIntosh
S pink identity

Big arts festivals have been cautiously opening up to the public – but what is it like to be there? Róisín O’Brien sampled summer dance in Edinburgh…

The run-up

‘Please note that Phoebe Waller-Bridge is currently unavailable for interview.’

So reads a line at the bottom of 2021’s Edinburgh festival fringe launch release. Waller-Bridge, star of the hit TV series Fleabag and who first performed the theatrical version at the Fringe in 2013, was announced as the first president of the Fringe Society – the administrative body which facilitates the fringe – in February 2021. As I comb through a mixture of online and live listings, in newly Covid-safe venues by artists who have been out of action since August 2019, I wonder if I would have wanted to interview Waller-Bridge… An interview with a celebrity figurehead, albeit a Fringe success story, is not the festival experience I’m hunting for.

In pre-pandemic times, the Edinburgh festivals (including but not limited to the Edinburgh Fringe) were both all-consuming and interior, the city likewise transformed by them even though the performance areas remain stubbornly localised. If you’re in it, your world morphs into early press calls, bad late-night comedy shows and last-minute dashes to the Next Big Thing. Even though it is a tiny percentage of the overall programme, there is a comparative glut of dance, a descending of international companies and experimental work from abroad that doesn’t often make it past London.

If you’re out of it, though, it can completely pass you by. This feels particularly exacerbated by the pandemic this year: preview nights are replaced by on-demand shows, eager flyering teams by (environmentally friendly) QR codes, and spontaneity by even more limited and socially distanced seats (the bubbles of ‘one’ ominously circled in red).

Going out

Edinburgh itself becomes more of a stage. MultiStory, a collaboration between the venues ZOO, Gilded Balloon, Traverse Theatre and Dance Base, is a new, specially constructed outdoor stage dramatically erected under Edinburgh Castle.

Here I catch Ben Okri & Charlotte Jarvis’ Starting From First Position. Using dance and words, poet Okri and dancer Jarvis move through a series of musings on responsibility, action and creativity, particularly in relation to the climate crisis. They dip into each other’s worlds with sensitivity and a certain amount of success: dancing with precise idiosyncrasy, Jarvis speaks crisply and with direction, while Okri has a vigour in his movements across the stage. Starting From First Position, though, remains a series of questions: emphatically asked but not answered.

Misty outdoor field with woman in gold/black embroidered top and gold slacks, arms outstretched, eyes closed. Behind her, dotted other individuals in bright clothes.
Christine Devaney’s Field – Something for the Future Now (Company Seed). Photo © Matt Beech

Elsewhere and likewise focusing on the outdoors, the Edinburgh International Festival’s dance offering comprises four specially commissioned international films of dancers in their home towns, including Field – Something for the Future Now from Edinburgh-based company Curious Seed, conceived and directed by Christine Devaney. A four-hour durational work set in Holyrood Park, with the now inactive volcano of Arthur’s Seat in the background, dancers of all ages and backgrounds emerge in and out of vast green landscape. Dog-walkers skirt the edges; dogs carry on through, sniffing.

Recognising the outdoors as co-creator rather than a second-tier performance space, Field is at its strongest when it embraces that big open space. Groups form out of the corner of your eye without you noticing; lines, relations, territories emerge slowly. Amongst the groups of performers are young people from Lyra, an Edinburgh-based company making work with young people, and Dance Base’s PRIME, Scotland’s first semi-professional dance company for the over-60s. The latter regale the audience in evening wear and silk gloves, with a certain joie de vivre.

Field contains both a sense of a futuristic wasteland through the torn grey flags that outline the performance space, and medieval pageantry. Young children in brightly coloured capes and swords gallivant across the space, conducted by a bow-waving cellist. The piece, nonetheless, is primarily a slower pace of ‘entertainment’, the contract with the audience gentle and minimal.

A digital turn

Back in my flat, I tune into some of the digital offerings. Is it just me and other critics here?

In Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg’s Future Cargo, a truck pulls up into a deserted urban location. Its driver is mysteriously not answering their radio. The camera zooms out to show the whole container, the side of which lifts to reveal silver-clad figures moving inside the container on a conveyer built. With no facial expressions visible under the morph suits, there’s an alienness to the creatures, who interact with everyday objects such as house plants, tennis bats or balloons. Are they going somewhere, or have they arrived here? Future Cargo sits somewhere between sinister and playful, and while it doesn’t hook the audience on a discernible narrative, it’s an enjoyable enough ride.

Takao Baba’s Boys Don’t Dance (E-Motion company)

I don’t manage to catch nearly as much as I would like of Ian Abbott’s collaboration with ZOOTV, which showcases a variety of hip-hop works. I’m drawn to the blurb of Boys Don’t Dance from Germany company E-Motion and conceived by Takao Baba, which informs me – an old person – that it will take inspiration from TikTok. Turns out, if you’re not on TikTok, you probably won’t catch what they’re referring to. Boys Don’t Dance is an invitation to find dance in the everyday and to not feel embarrassed about dancing, regardless of gender. The concept is fun, the delivery slightly unstructured: it’s about halfway through the performance before we are invited to move with the dancers.

Four dancers in grey tops and trousers, three with long sticks pointing towards a table on which the fourth sits.
Fugue in Two Colours, by Carl Knif / Helsinki Dance Company. Photo © Yoshi Omori

A digital standout is Fugue in Two Colours, an excessively competent work from 2015 Aerowaves artist Carl Knif that is brilliant in its coldness without losing something human. The additional frame of the recording amplifies the work, which crosses thresholds between audience and performer, life and death, here and there.

‘Crisp’ kept coming to my mind when watching it – from the silver gleam of the costumes, to the starkly cut panels in the side of the stage that the dancers enter from. Starting from a loosely staged set with microphones and a table, the performers (a mixture from Carl Knif Company and Helsinki Dance Company) shift between stage and auditorium, dance costume and puffer coats, and from controlling to following, always expertly attuned to one another. Skeletal branches appear, as do darkly clad figures under cold blue lighting. The music of Dmit­ri Shostakovich and sound design from Janne Hast moves from exacting piano to synthesised sounds and eerie music-box chimes. Fugue in Two Colours constantly wobbles in and out of certainty, but disorientation is not the endgame, unlike most pieces of its ilk. Rather, it’s simpler: the darker side of the work, of the performers, of life – whether that is memory, the subconscious or the unknown – surfaces and makes itself felt.

Dance Base

Normally a stalwart of August dance programming, Dance Base has, like most venues, a more modest offering this year. Dance Base Unwrapped is an installation piece where you can walk between film screenings of work made in lockdown, to Luke Pell’s Take Me To Bed. Pell’s work is designed as a space for people to view bodies they may feel ‘discomforted’ by. The vertical screens, which show bird’s-eye views of the performers filmed in bed, placed in a studio of bean bags, allow a soporific curiosity. In the hallway of the Dance Base building, there is also a tribute to Raymond Kaye (King), a dance artist and teacher who worked in Scotland and passed away 20 years ago. In amongst other people’s memories of his witty retorts, I recall my own experience in a ballet class when we turned to execute the exercise on the left-hand side, to which he quipped: ‘it’s hard when you’ve got two legs, isn’t it?’

Woman in pine forest, her three small children hanging on her shoulders.
Natasha Gilmore and kids in Barrowland Ballet’s Family Portrait.

Separate to the Dance Base Unwrapped programme, Barrowland Ballet’s Family Portrait, made with director Natasha Gilmore and her children, is an intelligent and warm interactive video installation. Four screens on four sides of a grey square with a compass drawn onto it, hug the studio. A recognisably purple, yellow, and green Scottish cinematic landscape sets the scene. Under each screen are bottles containing things picked up from the forest: a pigeon’s wing, some bark, sheep’s wool.

A game is in process as we enter the space, Gilmore and her children jumping out of the foliage and trees to make animal sounds. It’s enjoyable to glance between the four screens, always hunting in amongst the 360-soundscape. There’s an honest contrast between the urban flash of the children’s Nike trainers and Angry Birds references with the scraggy woods in which they and their mother proceed to play in, narrate over and dance in for the duration of the work. The play across the four screens is inventive without tipping into a gimmick: the group march across the screens sequentially, their costumes changing from frame to frame.

Family Portrait feels fraught in its poignant capturing of time, through the very act of filming Gilmore and her family (rather than through the heavier metaphorical images, such as the children poking a dead bird). At points Gilmore carries all three young children, which will soon become physically impossible. The exuberance of their youth contrasts with moments where we see Gilmore struggling to cope, both figuratively through movement and in one brief flash where we see the youngest child crying.

Isn’t a bit weird to be reviewing someone’s kids? Yes, maybe. Family Portrait does feel like exactly that though, a portrait – we are not seeing the family, but the family in this moment of creating a film. A poem read out by the oldest son is both brave in its honesty and honed in its craft and delivery. There is a slight loss of drive towards the end of the film, after the succession of many different set ups, but overall this is a nicely intimate rather than raw documentation.

Final days

In the final week of the festivals, I’m working on a theatre project and don’t see much dance. I watch the temporary venues subsequently get pulled down to make way for students to return. I read Jan Martens’ State of the Union address at Het TheaterFestival in The Netherlands, where he talks of the created work as containing form, content and process.

On the last Sunday in August, a friend asks me: ‘what was the quality of the dance this year?’ Nothing immediately stands out – there is a lot of piecemeal, works devised over Zoom and in bouts, put together in separate rooms and studios. But the artists’ tenacity is accompanied, perhaps, by a better sense of how hard it is to get into that room; to work in an industry so rudely yet easily shaken by the pandemic.

Did August really happen? For some, I think it did. 

Location Icon
Edinburgh, Scotland
You may also like...