Pulling power


Usher Hall, Edinburgh


Festival Theatre

WHAT has Scotland done to deserve Joaqun Corts? Over the past couple of years we have also had a visit from the legendary Baryshnikov, not to mention Edinburgh regulars such as Mark Morris, Nederlands Dans Theater and the Rambert Dance Company.

The answer lies in the hard work of dance professionals promoting their cause north of the Border, with a good 20 years spent laying the foundations of a fertile dance culture. This toil has borne fruit in a new generation of fans who flock to watch both big-name professionals and small homegrown companies alike.

Once a nation that liked its dancing men in tights, we now adore Baryshnikov in his boiler suit, strutting his stuff with a set of ladders. We watch unfazed as a lone female from his White Oak Dance project sits on a stool with a wire basket on her head, stuffing her mouth with washing up sponges and foam hair rollers. We take it all in our stride as Mark Morris capers his roly-poly frame around with joyful abandon . Treated to displays from the cream of the world’s choreographic talent, we have become literate in the culture of dance.

But much of the credit for the dance renaissance must also go to Dance Base, Scotland’s dedicated national centre for dance, of which Mark Morris is artistic patron. From its purpose-built, award-winning 7m site, it provides a vibrant, inspirational focal point, offering world-class facilities for anyone who wants to shake a leg, be it break-dancing or ballet. Scottish Dance Theatre too, based in Dundee, the country’s only full-time contemporary dance company, has grown in size and status under Janet Smith, nurturing and promoting new talent nationwide. Their signature piece, High Land, a "respectful but irreverent" dance through Scotland’s culture and heritage, from the Clearances to midges, performed in our alternative national dress, the rain mac, is indicative of how far we have come.

Don’t take it from me, take it from someone who knows: the 88-year-old dance fan beside me watching Rambert this week. As a child, she saw Pavlova’s Dying Swan at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre. "It was beautiful, of course, but it’s so long ago, whereas this is here, this is now, it’s fantastic."

Rambert were part of a double dance whammy of shows in the capital this week, the other half of which was flamenco superstar Joaqun Corts. Long before the Spaniard had put one tiny tapping toe on stage, lupine howls of desire reverberated around the sedate plasterwork of the Usher Hall. His fans were there in force and the sense of anticipation among an almost hen-night audience was palpable. His crowd was already won over, they were gagging for it. Corts did not disappoint.

The diminutive 33-year-old flamenco dancer, born in Crdoba to a gypsy family, has been on the road since he was 12 and has put the moves and music of his Spanish heritage back on centre stage for an international audience.

Small but perfectly formed, he hogs the limelight with an assurance that knows it is rightfully his. Finishing each set-piece with a flourish, he gives a delighted how-about-that-then, a did-you-see-that flick of the wrist. At one point he holds his finger to his ear, waiting for the applause. His satisfaction in his own performance is kept just this side of arrogance by his willingness to engage with the audience. "I hope he gets his top off," squeaked the excited fan next to me, bouncing up and down in her seat. And halfway through the performance, he obliged. Spoilsports who seek to criticise this popular practice should take a look at classical ballet where nude torsos are de rigueur.

In a world where the Prime Minister can roll up his sleeves during a speech, surely Corts can dance topless (especially after he’s spent all that time shaving his chest). After all, he is all about passion and struggle. Proud of his gypsy heritage, Corts sees flamenco as embodying the spirits of rebellion, an answer to the persecution his people suffered for centuries, saying: "Our only cry and song of liberty was through music and dance, to say, ‘Here we are’. "

We hear you loud and clear, Joaqun, particularly against the excellent soundtrack provided by his troupe of musicians and singers. The music for this show, entitled Live, comes from 11 instrumentalists on strings and drums, with particularly resonant guitars and flute. Alongside were seven singers who played their voices like instruments, soaring and dipping around the stamping of Corts’ feet. At times, thunderous clapping was the only accompaniment to the dancing. With a stamp it was over and he left the stage, dripping.

From the dancer as popstar experience to Rambert Dance Company, which filled the stage at the Festival Theatre on Wednesday. The evening began with legendary American choreographer Merce Cunningham’s Ground Level Overlay. A technically precise, controlled work for 15 dancers, created using the computer program ‘Life Forms’, it is performed to an unconventional score reminiscent of a relaxation tape - but much stranger. It was the sound of 10 trombones playing in a two-million-gallon disused water tank, helped along in the auditorium by conch shells and the inspired use of a funnel and hosepipe. The hauntingly beautiful score combined with perfectly controlled black-clad dancers on a stage bathed in golden light.

Next came Grinning in Your Face by Christopher Bruce, the latest work from the company’s artistic director. Inspired by the folk and blues sounds of Martin Simpson, the music comes straight out of America’s Depression years and displays Bruce’s trademark political edge. Conjuring up images of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Walker Evans’ black-and-white Dust Bowl photographs, this was the piece that really shone, the nine male and female dancers relaxed and fluid. A series of sketches to each of the songs depicted care-worn women and work-weary men literally holding each other up.

Sometimes they closely depicted the lyrics, such as in Little Birdie, where single girls yearn to escape the burden of motherhood, swirling homely cardigans and sprig-printed dresses like wings; at other times, the dancers mopped their brows and stooped their shoulders, evoking images of a whole era. Throughout, a matriarchal figure weaves the sketches and music together, sometimes watching from one of the wooden crates littering an otherwise bare stage, representing the women who dragged their families through the 1930s.

Hard on its down-at-heels came the world premire of Wayne McGregor’s PreSentient, a fast and furious in-your-face spectacle featuring 11 dancers against a huge screen backdrop which flicked from serene lilac to bright, energetic shafts of light. Accompanied by three string quartets from Rambert’s associate orchestra, London Musici, playing away vigorously at Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet in the orchestra pit, the whole impression was one of beautiful urgency, of discordant harmony. Occasionally the timing slipped, perhaps an indication of lack of rehearsal, but with time, this promises to be an outstanding, energising work, which was over all too soon.


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