Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance, physical theatre & circus reviews: And | Sense of Centre | FEMME | Shoes | Casting Off

A jaw-droppingly bold Scottish contemporary dance show, plus cerebral dance about belonging, and contrasting conceptions of womanhood. Reviews by Andrew Eaton-Lewis, Kelly Apter, Fiona Shepherd and Fergus Morgan

And *****

Dance Base, until 28 August

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It begins with a traditional Scottish sword dance (“to break the ice”) and then a brief history of Highland dancing and Charlotte McLean’s childhood in Arbroath. Later on there’s another, very different sword dance, but to say more about that would be to spoil the many surprises in this exhilarating, occasionally jaw-droppingly bold and clever show.

Charlotte McLean in And PIC: Maria Falconer
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McLean describes And as, among other things, “a homage to the earth, the cosmos, the miniscule, the magic, the meaning, the moment, the moments before and all that’s yet to come”. At its heart is a piece of contemporary dance that McLean began creating while studying ballet in London, and which she intends to continue performing into old age. It soon becomes clear that the dance is life itself, with all its pleasures, disappointments, anxieties, fears and constant motion, sometimes joyful, sometimes traumatic. As the choreography shifts from moment to moment, so do McLean’s themes, as the twentysomething reels off an ever evolving list of contemporary preoccupations: climate change, feminism, Brexit, friendship, love, family, belonging, all those things that cumulatively can make you feel overwhelmed. And then, just as the show reaches its most intense and exposing moment, and you’re wondering if she’s ok, there’s a cheeky joke to break the ice again, a phone call to her granny (an unexpected highlight), and the Spice Girls.

And deserves recognition for its ambition, its humour, and McLean’s expert handling of its constant shifts in tone. It’s an impressively audacious show from a talent to watch. Andrew Eaton-Lewis

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Sense of Centre ****

Dance Base, until 28 August

Who among us hasn’t sought, but failed to find, a feeling of belonging? Whether it’s to a place or to people, we spend most of our lives trying to connect in one way or another. Which is why Jack Webb’s Sense of Centre, despite citing circumstances very particular to his own life, feels easy to latch on to.

The work brings together four distinct parts – Webb’s recorded voice, reminiscing about places he has lived and his desire to feel at home there; a video backdrop of ‘white noise’ visuals that give way to footage of waves and forests; a table of miniature trees, hands and torsos that sit still on a tray or spin on a bespoke turntable; and Webb himself sharing his cerebral brand of graceful contemporary dance.

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The action at the table is fascinating. After spells of movement, Webb returns to it time and again with renewed intent – as if this time, he’ll finally get it right and find solace. The tiny revolving figures projected onto a TV screen no doubt have specific relevance for Webb, but we can make of them what we will. Certainly the trees, both static on the tray and speeding past on screen, evoke a sense of nature calling us home.

Some will find the slow movement of the second half over-extended and soporific, others will find it hypnotic. I was somewhere in between. But when he does move, Webb’s wide arms and pain-racked face pull as back in immediately. This is a man trying to find his place in the world, geographically and emotionally, and in this intimate space at least, he fosters a connection with us. Kelly Apter

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FEMME ***

House of Oz, until 25 August

Taking us from “good girl” in a pretty dress playing with soft toys to a strapped-up dominatrix wielding a whip, Erin Fowler runs the gamut of feminine stereotypes. Each costume change takes place in a brightly lit tent, casting shadows of her quickly pulling on a pair of heels or tying up her hair. When she emerges, Fowler traverses the catwalk, smiling or pouting, depending on which version of womanhood she’s portraying. Overhead, we hear testimonials from boys and girls, men and women, about the pressures of gender conforming – or, less easy to listen to, of how to get a woman sufficiently stocious so you can do what you want with her.

Some sequences hit home, in particular one where Fowler – dressed in an everyday top and skirt – is having fun dancing to David Bowie until she’s pawed at by an invisible unwanted presence. Others feel too obvious or don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Plus those costume changes really eat up the minutes.

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But Fowler has a strong stage presence, and her closing monologue about the kind of world she’d like to live and work in is both personal and heartfelt. Kelly Apter

Shoes ***

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PBH’s Free Fringe @ The Street, until 28 August

Standing over six feet tall, Kristen Helen Poppe is definitely not your traditional petite dancer. She has even had to ditch the retractable stage in her venue to avoid hitting the ceiling with her raised arms. Poppe came late to dancing as a discipline and is not the greatest technician, but her dancing has always been a way of reckoning with her identity, and the routines she performs in this intimate space are replete with her love of movement.

Just as she wanted to drum with the boys in the school band, she loves the feeling of masculine power she gets from rhythmic tap dancing – none of your jazz hands/toes Broadway tap here. Ballet allows her to express her feminine side, while she also demonstrates the fun of Irish dancing, the groundedness of Appalachian flat footing and the expressive freedom of contemporary dance.

All these facets of her identity are represented by the different types of shoes she wears to execute her moves. Poppe favours the word “queer” in all its reclaimed positivity and her arrival at a non-binary, less traditionally gendered sense of self is recounted with charming informality. Fiona Shepherd

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Casting Off ****

Assembly Roxy, until 28 August

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Australian circus troupe A Good Catch has brought two shows to Edinburgh this August: Zoё, an abstract exploration of the climate crisis that ran during the first two weeks of the festival, and Casting Off, the company’s hit show that first visited Scotland in 2018, which is on at Assembly Roxy until the end of the month.

To be blunt, A Good Catch should have just done Casting Off for the entire month, because Zoё was awkward and underwhelming, and this is anything but: it is a playful, poignant and ultimately spectacular show about inter-generational female relationships.

A Good Catch’s three core members – Debra Batton, in her 60s; Sharon Gruenert, in her 40s; and Spenser Inwood, in her 30s – spend an hour performing various acrobatic feats and balancing acts using little more than a table, three chairs and their highly trained and finely tuned bodies. It is really watchable, well-choreographed stuff.

What makes Casting Off stand out, though, is the brilliantly funny chat that Batton, Gruenert and Inwood have while they are performing. They bicker and banter like old friends – or, more accurately, like the grandmother, mother and daughter they kind-of are.

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They play silly games, they get mad at each other, they take the piss out of each other, but always with laughter and love. Some of it is rehearsed – little songs and sketches full of wit and wisdom – and some of it is evidently improvised, and all of it gently explores – for want of a better phrase – the female experience.

It is that sense of humour that turns Casting Off from a good circus show into a great one, and it is always there, even at Casting Off’s remarkable conclusion, when Inwood and Gruenet perform some spectacular, swinging stunts on the static trapeze, Inwood humming a happy tune to herself until she is completely out of breath. It is an amusing and impressive end to an amusing and impressive show. Fergus Morgan