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Festival Lights

Edinburgh is quiet. In August, the city normally swells with people jostling to get into theatres, pubs, shipping crates, beer gardens, and tents. The festivals are a key part of Edinburgh’s identity, and while there are often murmurs within the industry that a break from, or a scale back of the festivals wouldn’t do the city any harm, nobody wanted a break this way.

Aaron Venegas and Jerome Anthony Barnes on set for Frontiers. Photograph by Mihaela Bodlovic

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The Edinburgh International Festival—the performing arts festival which the more anarchic Fringe grew up around and eventually overtook in terms of scale—has this year put together My Light Shines On, a series of filmed commissions in familiar Edinburgh venues that will be up on their YouTube channel through the month of August.

One such commission is An Evening with Scottish Ballet, a selection of short films which includes the world premiere of soloist Nicholas Shoesmith’s Catalyst on the Festival Theatre Stage, revivals of previous festival works, and existing digital performances. Scottish Ballet have been working since 2017 on curated digital seasons, leaving them somewhat better equipped than others to deal with aspects of lockdown.

Barnaby Rook Bishop, Thomas Edwards and Sophie Martin in the filmed performance of Catalyst by Nicholas Shoesmith. Photograph by Mihaela Bodlovic

I’m struck by the amount of time I spend wondering how the films were made. Only two dancers in the studio? This must be due to government regulations regarding people congregating. In Shoesmith’s Catalyst, there are spaced out markers on the floor: ‘is that what 2 metres distance looks like?’ I ask. The workings behind the performance come to the fore: might this be a shift for all viewers over the next few months, even years?

In resident choreographer Sophie Laplane’s Oxymore, we’re in what looks like a prop cupboard—would the duet have been filmed there had we not abandoned stages? These glimmers of creative possibilities feel welcome. This pandemic has not only negatively affected the performing arts but shown how precarious working in the industry was to begin with: its frequent use of unprotected freelance workers, or the struggle for venues to break even, to name but a few examples.

Laplane’s creations standout. Disjointed, nonchalant configurations are in abundance in the tightly executed duet of Oxymore, performed by Rishan Benjamin and Anna Williams. It’s exciting to then watch Idle Eyes, created in a week in 2019, and note the development in sophistication and complexity. As the dancers move to Emptyset’s throbbing score under bright pink lighting, director (and editor) Eve McConnachie’s filmmaking confuses the viewer in a restless, exhilarating fashion: there are quick cuts to dancers in new configurations (are they in a different room?) before the camera jumps back to a wider shot revealing the larger spatial layout, creating an engaging trick and reveal dynamic. The ending is scarily prescient, capturing the fear and unpredictability within our current situation.

Alexander Whitley’s Prometheus & Epimetheus cuts between two pairs of dancers moving through the same choreography: I enjoy the flow between the two, while simultaneously wanting to spend more time watching the choreography’s precise, clear cuts through space without jumping away. Helen Pickett’s Trace provides a moment of intimacy, while Frontiers, with direction also from McConnachie and choreography from Myles Thatcher, cuts between shots of concrete Glasgow and its couples with flair. All of the films have music added over the movement, rather than capturing any sound within the studio: for some films, like in Idle Eyes, this pulls the viewer along at breakneck speed, but in others the image appears slightly flattened.

Claire Souet in the filmed performance of Catalyst by Nicholas Shoesmith. Photograph by Mihaela Bodlovic

The evening ends with the whole company on stage in Shoesmith’s Catalyst. Spaced apart on the marked floor and wearing masks, it is the most direct response to the pandemic. The dancers convulse through their torsos or wrap their arms out to embrace some unknown entity. At points, I can see (and sense) a yearning, a group synchronicity. The patterning can feel cluttered, but maybe this is a result of months of me nervously jumping aside on busy pavements. The dancers’ eyes peek out over their masks, the camera lingering on well-known faces.

Many of the shots, here and throughout the evening, are close-ups or zoned in on the dancer’s body. In Catalyst, there are some views from the balcony, a familiar physical perspective that could normally feel uninteresting in a dance film. We are quietly reminded in these shots of the spaces we miss, the festivals we flock to.

In years to come, a curated canon will have sifted down to students and historians, a canon of ‘art made in the pandemic.’ It can feel quite repetitive now—themes of confinement, isolation, and touch. It’ll be interesting to see what ‘sticks,’ what, through the dictates of taste and the predilections of gate keepers, gets passed down. What will we forget?

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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