Dance reviews roundup: Autobiography | Brocade | Tabarnak | The Troth

Lead dance critic Donald Hutera reviews Autobiography (3 stars) | Brocade (3 stars) | Tabarnak (4 stars) | Troth (3 stars)

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Tabarnak by Cirque Alfonse. Image: Audric Gagnon
Published 14 Aug 2018

The mid-festivals experience can be a weird, wired, tired, any and everything goes beast of a thing. Typically by the end of the second week you’ve had the pleasure of climbing at least a few new artistic peaks, but also fallen down just as many creative holes. The following four productions are a generally positive reflection of that flux of responses, and a good indicator of the diverse (some might say perverse) range of what’s on offer in the catch-all category of dance, physical theatre and circus.

Wayne McGregor’s place at the top of the UK’s dance food chain is secure, not least because of his position (since 2008) as resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet. He also heads his own eponymous company. Founded in 1992, it used to be named Random Dance.

Both randomness and science are built into McGregor’s latest work, Autobiography (3 stars), programmed as part of the International Festival. Last year his entire genome was sequenced as part of a research study. Autobiography is based upon the resultant 23-part genetic "library". What’s more, at each performance McGregor’s genome is selected and sequenced afresh thanks to a handy-dandy algorithm created by Nick Rothwell. This means that, structurally speaking, no two performances are ever alike.

What an ego trip it must be to shape your cellular or molecular self into a show and parade it in all its abstract glory on the international stage. And make no mistake, Autobiography very much qualifies as a large slice of abstract art even if interpreted by a cast of 10 physically superior young human beings. Lasting 80 (too long) minutes, the piece is divided into discrete, titled and non-consecutively numbered segments that vary—but ultimately maybe not enough—in terms of mood and content. The cast is exceptionally flexible and beautifully disciplined, moving with an athletic and at times animalistic articulacy.

But there’s a price to be paid for all that hyperactive fluency. What poses problems is not the dancers but rather the often overly busy, clinical and seemingly arbitrary dance itself. Although there are plenty of fast moments and stretchy body displays, most of the time Autobiography is as sensual as ice. It is also principally accompanied by an abrasive, nerve-grating score (from American electronic musician Jlin) that, at its worst, is like having nails air-gunned into your brain. Long-time McGregor collaborator Lucy Carter’s lighting is, however, sheer genius – aside, that is, from the moments when she blinds us.

Presented by Summerhall as part of Army @ The Fringe, The Troth (3 stars) is no less ambitious but substantially different in style, scale and tone. Produced by the South Asian dance organisation Akademi and choreographed and directed by Gary Clarke, this is a well-crafted hour of narrative dance-theatre that pays tribute to the estimated 60,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in service to the Allied Forces in World War One. It’s a good, solid and accessible piece of entertainment devised from a valuably particular historical angle.

Aptly pegged as a "wartime story of love and sacrifice", the production is receiving a somewhat cramped but workable staging in a not-so-central army reserve centre. Clarke and company pack a lot into an hour. He puts the cast of six through some lively, dramatically enveloping and, for them, emotionally charged paces against a backdrop of archival film footage (as well as some startling, present-day but made to look vintage close-ups). BBC Young Dancer finalist Vidya Patel is especially memorable as a mournful, large-orbed object of Subhash Viman Gorania’s affections. The latter is a most sympathetic doomed male lead, well-supported by four other men including Daniel Hay-Gordon in a dual role as a starchy English officer and a slightly camp German baddie.

Independent choreographer Roberta Jean’s Brocade (3 stars) is described as a "meditation on the working body". Staged, unusually, in Edinburgh’s City Chambers under the auspices of Dance Base, this hour-long female quintet features marginally experimental, relatively textured live music for voice and violin. The audience occupies two facing rows of chairs. The black-clad, bare-legged cast steps, bounces, skips, hops, scurries and sails in the space between and around us.

Although their highly rhythmic, consciously mechanical movement conveys considerable variety, it’s not so easy surrendering to an experience that seems more functional than fun. Creditable as Brocade is, the oddly joyless, non-exhilarating first night performance only hints at a richer human potential. The most notable performer is Stephanie McMann, who at various junctures seems irritated, wearied, mischievous or possessed. Unlike some of her temperamentally cooler, less emotionally transparent colleagues, you can see McCann thinking through her actions and processing the consequences of her physical choices. She helps make Brocade that bit more involving and alive.

Finally there is Tabarnak (4 stars) by Cirque Alfonse, the French-Canadian company responsible for the wonderfully wacky yet poetic hit, Barbu, a few Fringes ago. This lot makes circus like no one else, imbuing their shows with a Québécois flavour and a buoyantly oddball, literally whip-cracking sensibility that remains very winning. Much of what the four men and two women under the Underbelly big top do consists of acrobatic feats and demonstrations of skill, but usually deployed straight-faced and tongue-in-cheek. These folks are strong. And funny. Essentially an off-the-wall send-up of small-town organised religion, Tabarnak is further carried along on the waves of a storming, live electro-trad score. It all builds to the kind of climax that leaves you thinking, "I’ll have what they’re having!"