Jaw-droppingly complex: Hung Dance in See You. Photo © Chen Chih-Chang

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Edinburgh by numbers

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Jaw-droppingly complex: Hung Dance in See You. Photo © Chen Chih-Chang
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Róisín O’Brien figures a way round dance at the Edinburgh Festivals

And we’re back. It’s August 2022 and the Edinburgh festivals are up and running at full force. Calls to build back smaller after the pandemic are dwarfed amongst the human-sized posters and specially erected spiegeltents. Added to the (seemingly?) louder criticisms of the inaccessibility of the festivals, in particular the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for working-class and disabled artists and artists of colour, and the detrimental effect of short-term lets on affordable accommodation (amplified in but not unique to August), this year Edinburgh also saw rail and bin strikes visibly change the streets. The Fringe Society decided not to bring back their booking app, a decision widely criticised and no doubt felt by smaller shows. All amidst an impending cost of living crisis. Covid-19 still wormed its way into people’s plans and visa issues for visiting performers were not uncommon.

What can experimental dance offer and where does it sit in this maelstrom? And how should it be responded to? The race for shows to get their 4 or 5 stars – stickers at the ready – and the subsequent loss of nuance is a well-trodden path. But I look for a different set of numbers to tell the story of dance at this Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

‘Can I give him money?’ Bill Coleman in Le Flâneur. Photo © Wayne Eardley
‘Can I give him money?’ Bill Coleman in Le Flâneur. Photo © Wayne Eardley

Bustling mornings at Portobello, Edinburgh’s seafront. Bill Coleman (CA), performer of Le Flâneur, is dressed ornately in a black suit that is stitched with rings of sequins. He scuffs the ground with his tap shoes, steps on shells, and pulls out cans from the overflowing bins to crush them underfoot. He hands over instruments to kids passing by on their way to school and conducts a tiny orchestra. The instruments are a mixture of the archaic and comic, squeaky animal-shaped toys which trip up his own performance. ‘One more chicken, one more pig’ he directs. His furtive manner is almost that of someone unwell, vulnerable as they stumble into daylight. Audiences want to be Good Audiences: ‘Can I give him money, daddy?’, one boy asks.

28 years
And by Charlotte Mclean (UK) is inherently unfinished. It’s an ever-evolving solo that Mclean has been performing since 2017; she hopes to keep performing it in years to come. This dance poem moves between narration, Scottish sword dance, and deliberately awkward ‘Contemporary Dance’. Life floods in: from tears on the phone to worried relatives and the joy of friendships, to Roe v. Wade, the refugee crisis, and women who don’t have vaginas. Action and inaction physically press down on her – is she doing enough, she asks, as she crumples to and then lies flat on the ground? A personally dark, intense scene brings the swords back in a completely different way – Mclean easily breaks the tension, ‘another wee sword dance for you there’. Status at age 28? Vibrant, imperfect, honest.

Daniel Mariblanca, 71Bodies project. Photo © Camilla Svingen
Daniel Mariblanca, 71Bodies project. Photo © Camilla Svingen

2 genders
The binary is rejected in Daniel Mariblanca’s 71BODIES 1DANCE (NO), a solo performance that takes its name from the 71 transgender individuals Daniel interviewed when researching the work. The performance at Dance Base is an excerpt of a large multi-art form project; here, Mariblanca appears on his own with transparency and gentleness in a solo that morphs through different sentiments and experiences. There is sometimes a stop-motion like anxiety, or an extravagant pull of the body in a long stretch. The piece builds to a climax and abruptly stops – Mariblanca looks out at the audience, almost exasperated before exiting the stage. Is it exasperation at a collective inability to empathise with or, in some countries, legally recognise these individuals, or maybe exasperation that these lives are so often portrayed through trauma?

3,872 joint articulations (estimated)
Dances of complexity appear in Hung Dance’s See You (TW) and Donuts from Extended Play Dance (UK), led by Jamaal Burkmar. Director Lai Hung-Chung’s choreography in See You is jaw-droppingly complex, the performance an effusion of immensely detailed movements that ripple between the white-clad performers. The stage is bare, the themes impressionistic – movement and stamina is all. In Donuts, we get slightly more backdrop: three friends get ready for a night out, dressed in comfy clothes and sat on a sofa, framed by lamps and board games. Jamaal Burkmar’s Instagram-friendly choreography is composed of sharp isolations that spark from limb to collaborator in surprising yet harmonious ways. An hour is a long time to watch very similar sketches, but the movement language is engaging.

Suggested age rating for marikiscrycrycry’s (Malik Nashad Sharpe, UK) He’s Dead, a ‘dark fantasy choreography’ that asks: ‘Was Tupac depressed?’ Shrouded in extremely heavy haze, the four tartan-cut, chain-draped performers emerge from the back of the stage or behind the audience like apparitions in a dream. The choreography is likewise imagistic, transitioning from scenes of high kicks and bounces to a lonely figure singing about suicidal thoughts. Projections hover unstably in the air; flags are waved; water is ritualistically trickled down the performers’ faces. Dreams can be sensorially powerful but don’t always make sense, particularly if you’re on the outside. Maybe they don’t need to.

Sinister, deep, rich… Jack Webb’s Sense of Centre

Sense of Centre from Jack Webb (UK) is a solo work that mixes projection, movement, film, encompassed by a soundscape that is at times sinister, deep, and rich. Over Webb’s intensely considered yet fluid movement, a voice open-endingly asks ‘do you remember me?’ or states ‘I’ve always been with you.’ It’s a heavily aestheticised performance that holds its audience in its studied grasp. Another solo from Sarah Hopfinger (UK) in Pain and I delves deeper. There’s very little overtly choreographed movement yet Hopfinger’s steadfast and exposed presence on the stage somehow manages to communicate that which remains elusive: the experience of living with chronic pain.

Meaning is in the mind of the beholder in Eivind Seljeseth’s All Over (NO). Through individual headphones, a voice intimately outlines the minimalist choreography the three calm but endearing dancers perform on stage. Actions are described; moments of synchronicity hold the audience’s attention; personal anecdotes add flavour. All Over is whatever you want it to be, for better or for worse.

Night Dances by United Fall

10 minutes
There’s a 10-minute delay to the 10.30pm showing of United Fall/Emma Martin’s (IE) pulsating Night Dances. It’s ear plugs rather than headphones for this performance in a former church. A dancer dressed only in a blue tracksuit and trainers nervously prowls the space as the audience enter. His is the first night dance; a group of teenage girls enter next, then another lone man, and finally three women dressed in veils. Each night dance interrupts or bleeds into its predecessor but there’s no further connection between the parts. The dancers get lost in their own coolly lit world to live guitar and thumping bass. The young girls execute a drilled sequence of high kicks and acrobatics. In some ways they hold more power in their fierce collectivity and youth then the isolated men. An intense audience experience that remains in the venue.

The year Morag Deyes MBE took up the post of Artistic Director for Dance Base, Scotland’s National Centre for Dance. This year was her last fringe programme before turning it over to new Artistic Director, Tony Mills.

The reported drop in ticket sales across the Edinburgh Festival Fringe compared to 2019. While some of the dance shows are sadly quiet, the city is far from empty. There are 3,334 shows to choose from. The fringe has been going for 75 years. I’ve attended 11.

The bus I catch to the biggest arts festival in the world. What story will 2023 tell? 

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Edinburgh, Scotland
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