Finola Cronin and Mikel Murfi in Junk Ensemble’s Dances Like a Bomb

review, article

Edinburgh Fringe 2023: meshing interest with attendance

Read Icon Read
Time Icon Pink 7 min
Finola Cronin and Mikel Murfi in Junk Ensemble’s Dances Like a Bomb
S pink identity

In contemporary dance, is the intellectually interesting also the entertainment wary? You never can tell…

Contemporary dance is a weird thing to be part of. I’m so used to queuing for intellectually interesting, entertainment-wary shows, with small audience numbers often composed of other people from the industry. I’m used to these small audiences – but the step from a heaving thoroughfare to these quiet spaces echoes particularly loudly (if unfairly) in the competitive festival environment that is August in Edinburgh: who else goes to see these shows? How do they find out about them? Do they enjoy them?


One show that I hoped would build up to a bigger audience by the end of its run was Dances Like a Bomb from Irish company Junk Ensemble, featuring veteran performers Mikel Murfi and Finola Cronin (previously of Tanztheater Wuppertal). Performed in ZOO Southside’s oddly big venue within the fringe context, it’s a quiet, rambling, unstructured piece of dance theatre that poetically ruminates on ageing, regret, death; on those the moments that define us, and those that slip away.

We open on the two performers, sitting still in their white underwear. In the background, the simple set manifests as an eruption of green, which if you squint looks perhaps like a head emerging from the earth. This beautiful set is not explicitly reference at any point in the piece, instead it sits in the background, weighty but not overbearing. 

Dramatically, the work can sometimes feel like it needs tightening but that’s almost not the point. Instead, the audience sit in this dark place, willing their talented performers on. Cronin brings a delicacy and a wink in her eye, gesturing to her illustrious dance career. Murfi is a bent over, almost grumbling presence that inches across the stage, his dry voice cracking across the space. What do you want to forget, they ask each other? What haven’t you done? When were you at your best? Meandering through different physical and spoken word set-ups, including a brilliant slapstick scene that imagines different ways of dying, the performers physically tug, caress, and hit each other – sometimes out of obligation, frustration, or affection. It’s a wonderful, loose-knit performance of words and bodies, the art forms complementing rather than opposing each other.

Another show I catch in ZOO Southside, likewise meditating on legacy, is HARVEST from the Danish recoil performance group, choreographed by director Tina Tarpgaard. Two compelling performers and a square patch of earth with a strip of grass cutting down its middle, constitute the piece’s geography. Hilde I. Sandvold is a contemporary mover with a travelling, spacious, falling style; Jossette Reilly is a neo-flamenco dancer, rhythmic, direct and articulate in the extremities.

HARVEST starts with an interesting question: ‘would my body look different if I was a farmer?’ The question brings forth others. How much of who we physically are is innate or built up from choices we’ve made? If my buried body is unearthed, the performers continue, will people know I was a dancer? These questions hang in the air, rather than being directly answered. The interspersing of dance action, digs in the earth and increasing thuds from the podiums on which the audience sit, communicates an uncertain insistence. Uncertainty about art and effect, art and legacy, on the enormity of our changing earth and our ability to respond. HARVEST allows the mind to wander, sometimes out of the world it creates, but at other times into a reflective state.


From Denmark to Finland: I catch A Couple of Humans by Tsuumi Dance Theatre at Summerhall as part of the From Start to Finnish showcase. Two humans are waiting as we enter (performers Riikka and Antti Puumalainen). Looking out at the audience, they slowly put on very grey tights.

With a snap, we move from the casual to the crisp, through the very cool, subtle lighting design from Tiiti Hynninen. What follows is a series of very well-crafted choreographic sketches. There’s a patience to the pacing and commitment to the movement intentions, such that the audience can clearly see what they are meant to see: here, the dancers move together; there, they manipulate each other. Relationships and connections are brought to the fore in this clearly demarcated performance zone of abstraction, with fun music that has a constant quirkiness.

Alongside the distortion created by the tights, there is also extremely clever camera and projection work from Hynninen which sees the dancers move around an opaque screen and through different close-ups and angles. Fingers spreading in the tights makes for strange-webbed appendages. Bold red is shrugged on – a human desire for extravagance beyond the natural. There’s something othering too, in the focus on the skin or guise of human flesh and costume. It’s a gently surreal, kind and probing show, without pushing anything too far. We close on the comforting image of the two dancers curled in together, a couple asleep. And then it’s back out to join the other humans – I spy a group of human critics in the corner, typing on laptops.

A Couple of Humans by Tsuumi Dance Theatre. Photo © Petra Tihonen
A Couple of Humans by Tsuumi Dance Theatre. Photo © Petra Tihonen

On to a completely different duet is Duo by 0471 Acro Physical Theatre, part of the always reliable Taiwan Season. About twenty minutes into the piece, I think: ok, this might be fairly one-note, but the circus is impressive. The two performers (Sun Cheng-Hsueh and Hsia Ling) struggle to communicate; a lightly dressed set of a table, chairs and clothes that are either hung on rails or folded away hints at a strained domesticity. There’s a constant sad piano accompaniment, providing careful highlights for particular lifts.

However, as the piece progress, a darker side emerges through the constancy of disappointment. And the circus is not just impressive, it’s really well choreographed: the acrobatics are chosen to convey emotional dynamics precisely, rather than for their own sake. When there is lethargy, the dancers move almost casually from one pose to another. Where there is tension, there’s suddenly more counterbalancing, of holding someone right at the edge. And there’s surprise and nuance – movements and holds emerge from where you might not think, allowing the end poses to be unique results.

Near the end of this very long duet, a movement looks like it has gone wrong. The performers pause and look intently to each other, checking they’re each ok, gathering their focus. After such an intense performance, it’s almost more powerful – or at least becomes more powerful due to what has gone before – to see this very real negotiation, this very real relationship.

Mass Effect

Why do we enjoy watching people do what we cannot? Perhaps we marvel at the dedication to execute an idea; or perhaps we may sense that with our own application of logic, time, patience, we too could accomplish it. Our body tingles in response, as we live vicariously through the performer.

With a show like Mass Effect from Danish company Himherandit Productions, we watch dancers perform ordinary movements. Running. Kicking. Shimmying. Movements within the reach of many of us. Yet we watch them. We watch them sweat and get hotter and redder and more out of breath.

That is not to say that Mass Effect isn’t highly choreographed in its use of musicality and rhythm, in how the performers sync up with each other using the breath. Near the end of the performance, extra local dancers circle the core group to spur them on and there’s an openness and welcoming energy from the creative team. The audience remains in their seats.

Mass Effect, by Himherandit Productions (Denmark).
Mass Effect, by Himherandit Productions (Denmark).

This show of exhaustion has none of the weariness so many contemporary pieces looking at endurance have (see Yasen Vasilev’s reflections in Springback here). The auditorium is packed full. And the show is – completely invigorating. And I happily can’t work out why. 

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