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Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe recorded its fifth highest attendance in its history, a different reality from the ghostly years of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the cost-of-living crisis and the strain the arts sector in Scotland has been under in recent years was still there. Notably within the dance sector, this was most apparent at Dance Base, where Assembly Festival, one of the bigger venue operators, collaborated with the dance house to co-curate the programme and help alleviate costs. While it was great that Assembly was able to support Dance Base and its artists to continue to put on their shows, it was still slightly strange seeing the red Assembly branding next to the (newly rebranded) purple colours of Dance Base.


Edinburgh Festival Fringe


Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Edinburgh, Scotland, August 2023


Róisín O'Brien

“Habitat” choreographed and performed by Bettina Szabo. Photograph by Denis Martin

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The shows within Dance Base’s studio and across Assembly venues were as interesting and varied as you would normally expect. A quite unique performance was “Habitat” from Petrikor Danse. “Habitat” is a solo show, choreographed and performed by Bettina Szabo and inspired by the artist’s emigration from Uruguay to Canada. With the use of a large paper structure with hedgehog-like spikes (designed by Jacinthe Derasp), Szabo moves through different animal states and environments: from feral to vulnerable, from seemingly underwater to on land. The depiction is primordially recognisable, while also somewhat alien by using brightly coloured integrated lights within the structure. By the end of the performance, it appears as though this creature has migrated to space: beautiful rainbow coloured lighting illuminates the back of the stage and she walks through it, disappearing from view, escaping from constraints. A quiet but perfectly executed work.

Moving from solos to group choreographies comes the very serious, cool performance from Estonian Dance Agency and choreographer Igor Lider, “The Change.” We open with the outside being brought in as the dancers circle round the stage on skateboards in the understated low lighting. It’s hypnotic, until something shifts: a unifying spark across the technically attuned bodies as they suddenly move in unison. There is a lot of conceptual, loosely choreographed dance at the fringe, so it’s a pleasure seeing the dancers neatly and innovatively moving together as one. The light design from Elerin Tönne adds variation to the movement, through slicing lasers or bright colours that break up the dim state. As the performance develops, I start to itch for something that breaks this perfect state—and I get it. We are invited to join the dancers on stage, a fun relief after an intense performance (and something that no doubt could be enjoyable for other performances, too.) 

Estonian Dance Agency in The Change” by Igor Lider. Photograph courtesy of Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Over at Assembly itself, in the brilliant Roxy venue (a former church converted into a cavernous performance space), I catch “Shoot the Cameraman” from Luxembourg dance company AWA. An ominous sense pervades the production from company directors Baptiste Hilbert and Catarina Barbosa, the latter of whom also performs. Chekhov-like, we are introduced to key props at the beginning: a gun and cameras, the latter of which are set-up by two performers in old-fashioned clothes with a calm professionalism. 

The camera operators spend the performance coldly circling around the two main characters—the imposing Georges Maikel, who has an incredible ability to move in contorted, angsty movements, and the smaller, nervous Barbosa, who points, places and trembles. The couple seem forced together, him under some imposed, maybe public pressure while she is constantly on edge. The violence between them increasingly escalates with little breathing space, the lack of which means there is a slight monotony of tone. Choosing where to place your gaze as an audience member—on the live action, or the projected recording of the live action directed up on the screen behind the dancers—allows some interesting perspectives but can feel uncertain as to what is the focal point for the audience or reason at different junctures. Overall, it’s an aesthetically consistent production, with a lot of potential in the interplay between camera and dance, and dexterous dancing from the performers.

“Shoot the Cameraman” by AWA. Photograph courtesy of Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Moving away from Dance Base, I catch “Insomniac’s Fable” from Agit-Crik at Summerhall, as part of the From Start to Finnish programme. It’s performed in the Cairn’s Lecture Theatre, a small performance space that is almost overly decked out with a lighting rig. Sight lines can be tricky in fringe places like this, and the performance space is just about big enough for the two performers. But the setting nonetheless feels right: there’s an earnest ricketiness that suits the imaginative endeavours in the piece.

The programme notes promise a mixture of juggling and ballet. There’s always a risk when two art forms are smashed together of it becoming slightly gimmicky, but here the two art forms are used together to tell a tale of fantasy, otherworldly-ness and desire. Juggler Sakari Männistö journeys through different worlds, signified through either projected ink cut drawings (including one of a fox which surreptitiously blinks), different intensely coloured lighting states or changes in costume. He struggles to control or place himself in each world. His juggling has a nice mixture of surprise, of objects appearing where they shouldn’t, to expressions of frustration as he angrily hits the pins back and forth against each other. 

“Insomniac’s Fable” by Agit-Crik. Photograph by Patrick Baldwin

He encounters and interacts with dancer Erin O’Toole, whose relationship with him changes from malleable prop to a sort of resurgent Coppélia, from sultry seductress to a soaring angelic figure. When they move together, there’s an interesting mix of different types of movement being mimicked across the two forms (how a spin looks like within ballet compared to within juggling), to finding some intricate octopus like entanglements when passing objects back and forth between each other. Alongside a varied soundscape ranging from strings to electronics, the jumps between the different states can sometimes feel a bit stop-start and the combination of elements struggle to fully articulate clear meaning. But perhaps that is the wrong criteria to apply to this work of abstract sketches that has moments of creative flair.  

The fringe creates its own bubble, due to many of the venues being near each other. Most fringe venues are also not performance venues throughout the year. One of the most interesting bits of dance I saw was not a full show but was through catching Matthew Hawkins dancing at Ocean Terminal in Leith. Ocean Terminal is a large shopping mall with a now empty Debenhams department store. The store has been reclaimed and turned into a community centred hub all year-round. In it, children come and enjoy the play areas, school uniforms can be picked up for free, artist exhibitions sit under old signs for the dressing rooms, and other group activities take place (including fencing). In amongst this joyful, haphazard busyness, Hawkins moves through a daily improvised practice to piano. For twenty or so minutes, I am calmly captivated by the preciseness of location, the sensitivity to place in his responsive movement, and to the uniqueness of this very moment. A transporting fringe moment outside of the fringe itself. 

Róisín O'Brien

Róisín is a dance artist and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She regularly writes for Springback Magazine, The Skinny and Seeing Dance, and has contributed to The Guardian and Film Stories. She loves being in the studio working on a new choreography with a group of dancers, or talking to brilliant people in the dance world about their projects and opinions. She tries not to spend too much time obsessing over Crystal Pite.


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