Review feature: British Dance Edition 2014, Edinburgh

Diverse Moves

The UK’s biggest dance showcase – the British Dance Edition – ends its first visit to Scotland today. Mark Brown took a look through British dance’s shop window.

Dance in Britain would seem to be in rude health. The UK boasts successful, high profile classical companies, perhaps most notably the Royal Ballet, which is based at the Royal Opera House in central London. In the contemporary dance field, Scotland’s errant son Michael Clark continues to impress with his own London-based dance company, as do Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre and the Akram Khan Company (both also based in London).

So far, so metropolitan. What of dance in the rest of Britain? It was, in part, to answer that question that the National Dance Network established the biennial showcase known as the British Dance Edition back in 1998.

iTMOi by Akram Khan Company. Photograph: Jean-Louis Fernandez
iTMOi by Akram Khan Company. Photograph: Jean-Louis Fernandez

A huge undertaking, the BDE – which has been resident in Edinburgh since Thursday, and ends this afternoon – stages dozens of performances by UK-based dance artists to a large audience of British and international delegates, ranging from choreographers and dancers to venue programmers. Tickets for some performances in larger venues are also on sale to the general public.

The BDE may have been very good at shifting the focus away from the big names in London dance, but this year is the first time that it has staged its showcase outside of England. For Ailsa-Mary Gold, artistic director of the Dance House organisation in Glasgow, the event’s arrival in Scotland – with performances in both Edinburgh and Glasgow – is an important milestone.

“It’s hugely significant”, she says. “2014 is obviously a very significant year for Scotland, with the Commonwealth Games coming, and this is an opening to that.

“There’s been a significant lift in terms of the representation of Scottish work within the programme.” In fact, she adds, almost a third of the productions in this year’s showcase come from artists who are working in Scotland.

Gold is quick to point out, however, that the increase in the amount of Scottish work in this year’s BDE is not down to the fact that the programme is being hosted in Scotland. “There’s nothing there that’s been programmed because it’s Scottish”, she insists. “It’s been programmed on its own merits… there has been a surge in the quality of dance in Scotland in recent years.”

There’s no doubt that dance, particularly contemporary dance, in Scotland enjoys a higher profile now than it did even a couple of decades ago. Organisations such as Gold’s own Dance House and Dance Base (Scotland’s national centre for dance, which opened its splendid new building in Edinburgh city centre in 2001) are testament to the development of the sector. So too has been the emergence of Scottish Dance Theatre, a sort of cheeky younger cousin to Scottish Ballet, creating exciting contemporary dance out of its base at Dundee Rep Theatre.

It is no surprise, therefore, that one of the many Scottish shows in this year’s BDE was Winter Again, Scottish Dance Theatre’s fine production of a piece by acclaimed Norwegian choreographer and physical theatre maker Jo Strømgren. I first saw this darkly humorous, often deeply sensual piece – which is performed to gorgeous Schubert lieder – when it premiered at Dundee Rep in the spring of last year. Seeing it reprised on the stage of Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, I was unsurprised by how confidently it took its place in a major showcase.

The same cannot be said, sadly, of the piece which joined SDT’s work in a double-bill at the King’s. Misnamed London-based company Avant Garde Dance presented a mercifully short, 20-minute excerpt from their piece The Black Album. Although the young dancers impress in their extraordinary fitness and physical agility, the choreography itself, coming as it does from the street dance styles of break dancing and hip hop, is lacking in depth and originality.

The muscle rippling poses, the carefully maintained physical and facial attitude (a combination of arrogance, defiance and anger) are all-too-familiar. AGD can dance, for sure. It’s just a pity they look like they’re auditioning for the next Lady Gaga video.

The disappointment of AGD is easily forgotten, however, when one reflects upon iTMOi (in the mind of igor), the latest production by the Akram Khan Company. Embarking on an extensive European tour over the coming months, the piece (which is inspired by Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring) is visually stunning, highly imaginative and deeply poignant.

From the outset – when a frenzied, priest-like figure howls a Biblical text about Abraham’s preparedness, on the demand of God, to sacrifice his son Isaac – we know we are in a world of resonating mythology. Into this world, in which sparseness, darkness, light and shadow provide an exquisite platform for the movement, comes a female figure, apparently regal in her elaborate white dress and vast, majestic hat .

What follows seems like a profound reflection on the tensions between theocratic and state power, on the one hand, and human desire, on the other. Agonising scenes of ritual punishment of individuals, such as a man tied to ropes and tormented by a rabid mob, freeze one’s soul.

The piece is unusually powerful in its startling choreography, awe-inspiring movement, bleak-yet-beautiful design and impeccable use of music and sound. One of the most memorable and affecting art works I have seen for a long time, it illuminated the 2014 British Dance Edition.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 2, 2013

© Mark Brown


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