Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008: August 13, 2008

August 18, 2008

A major component of this year’s Fringe has been the InvASIAN Festival at the clubWEST venue, offering a broad representation of music, theatre and dance artists from across Asia. InvASIAN dance offerings include Korean b-boys, Indian classical and contemporary dance, Chinese dance and music, and lots more that there was no way for me to see.  

I was able to sample two shows: Dance Ihayami—an Edinburgh-based Indian troupe—presented a Kathakali dance depicting a story from the Hindu epic Mahabharatha, titled “Kalyanasawgandhikam.” Kathakali, the program tells us, is one of the oldest forms of dance theatre, dating from the s16th century. It centers on the reenactment of stories from great Indian epics using elaborate costumes, music, and stylized movement (including facial expressions and hand gestures). Most traditional performances lasted an entire night; modern interpretations—especially likely for Western audiences—present abridged versions. This Fringe version lasted less than one hour, but did what it was designed to do: gave a delicious taste of the lush complexity of the form.

From such sublime classicism, we moved to the ridiculous, or perhaps just bewildering. A Korean group called Lunatic Company presented Arirang Party, a hodge-podge of intense percussion (by three drummers, all with long loose hair and a flair for drama), delicate dancing (by three lovely young women), and exuberant martial arts displays by three men. Sometimes the interactions of these nine appeared comical, sometimes imagistic, and sometimes incoherent. Always it seemed that this group conceived of itself as an international sensation who should be performing to screaming crowds in stadiums with vast technical resources, rather than in a white-walled conference room done up with a stage at one end, some metal trusses, and a few automated lights. I left amused and confused, reminding myself that such cognitive dissonance is what the Fringe is all about.

My friend and I figured we’d go out with a bang and see a bunch of shows back to back on our last night in Edinburgh. At the Zoo Southside venue, Scottish Dance Theatre performed a delicious double-bill that left us sighing with satisfaction. UK-based choreographer Liv Lorent’s tenderhook caught at the eye and heart with the most effective and least hackneyed use of swirling ribbons I can claim to have seen. Dancers swirled across the stage, creating wispy circles of ribbon around or alongside themselves as they moved through hazy light. Women and men on pointe turned slowly in place, or arched backwards, counterbalanced against a partner. A woman akido-rolled diagonally across the stage. Couples swung each other through space like pendulums, or blossomed into lifts and collapsed gently out of them. And all accompanied by the spinning wisps, like fireflies or tiny comets. Sometimes movement you expected to feel fluid was marked by hesitations or lurches, or hops like stutters—lifelike, it breathed and tapped at your heart. The dancers moved with practiced confidence but each movement still felt new and fresh, and by the end of the half-hour piece, so did we.

Sharing the program was Hofesh Shechter’s Dog, which flirted with evolution, sending dancers from floor to crawl to standing and back again, never resting, never easy to pin down.  

We rounded out the night with Phantomysteria, performed by Teatr Novogo Fronta, an originally Russian physical theatre company now based in Prague. In an outdoor courtyard in the pouring rain, a post-apocalyptic world unfolded through light and sound, cruelty and kindness, and demonstrated the enduring importance of love to the human heart. And because of the rain, because of the stone and gravel, and the utterly committed and skilled clowning, the fearless, sometimes feral physicality of the performers, we bought it hook line and sinker. And that, friends, is the Fringe encapsulated: rain, fire, face-paint, love, pain, and ice skates on rocks.

Till next year.