ALL at first appears flamboyantly, rigorously Russian. A giant wooden tree centre stage, its branches drawing lean constructivist shapes across the stage. The imperial swell of Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony.
But what’s this? Sixteen slinky dancers from Brazil, pouring out of the tree, swinging and sliding from branches as though this were a game of parkour as opposed to an adaptation of Pushkin.
Welcome to Deborah Colker’s radical reimagining of Eugene Onegin. A thrilling mash-up of classical ballet and contemporary dance, it’s the sexiest love letter to 19th-century Russia I’ve ever come across – and an ambitious start to this year’s excellent EIF dance programme.
The story is whittled down to four characters – Tatyana, Onegin, Olga (her sister), and the poet Lensky – and each is played by four dancers. In Act II, these transform into eight Tatyanas and eight Onegins. Tatyana has scaled the heights of St Petersburg society (literally, the female dancers tumble on a higher level) and is now en pointe. Okay, the members of this notoriously athletic company looked precarious at times but Colker made even this work as a metaphor for sexual awakening in a breathtaking series of pas de deux and trois danced in shimmering squares of lights. This is Colker at her most ambitious and audacious. She even appears in both acts, not as Tatyana but as Pushkin – a risky move but in a feminist repositioning of the classic that shifts the focus from the spoilt aristocrat Onegin to the girl who falls for and then rejects him, it makes perfect sense.
There is a satisfying amount of gender-play in Casus’s Knee Deep too, which features four acrobats – three male, one female – walking on boxes of eggs and climbing each other like ladders. But more often than not, it’s the woman who has a man on her shoulders.
This circus troupe last came to the Fringe in 2009 with Circa, which did away with all the clapped-out circus cliches of drum rolls and clowning. What was left behind was awesome human strength, equality, sometimes even fear. Knee Deep takes this concept further. These acrobats are amazing precisely because when they create a shaking tower of limbs we see their muscles twitch, their jaws set with concentration, and their eyes widen. We see the relief when they pull off the egg-walking and the importance of trust when they mouth “ready?” before offering a knee as a step. Perhaps they aren’t so different to us earthbound audience members after all.
Over to Dance Base, I Am Son by Italian company Sanpapie, is a meditation on who we are, now, which immediately makes me wary because it’s a bit of a wide brief.
The first image is arresting: three dancers on the floor in white trousers and masks, one man breathing deeply so that his rolling chest becomes choreography in itself. But things get weird, fast, and eventually descend into self-indulgence. There is pretentious text posing questions about European identity. There is lots of playful simian movement and interesting dynamic choreography but then the masks come off and they start shouting gobbledegook at the audience. Then marching, acrobatics, simulated masturbation, clowning... by the end, I felt completely alienated, which could be the point of a piece about contemporary identity. Or I could just have been lost.
Matthew Hawkins and Steinvor Palsson are stalwarts of Scotland’s dance scene and a pleasure to see performing together in Fruitful Ties, a stylish piece (with lemons) that simmers with barely concealed baroque mischief. Though they dance the same classical-inspired steps, mostly to Handel, it is always in their own style and with their own flourishes.
However, there’s more to come. Lucy Suggate, a choreographer based in Leeds and a former Place Prize finalist, is a magnetic dancer. Bone Dust is a short piece inspired by the medieval imagery of the Danse Macabre that poses the question “how will I dance when I’m dead?”. Suggate begins with an animalistic, body-popping dance in a black tutu and skeleton mask before putting on a pair of winged trainers and telling us about her “choreographic problem”. Finally, weirdly, she gets up and gamely dances her bones to dust.
• Tatyana, run ended. Knee Deep, Assembly, George Square, until 27 August; I Am Son, Fruitful Ties and Bone Dust, all Dance Base, until Saturday. assemblyfestival.com; www.dancebase.co.uk
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Friday 24 May 2013
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