Edinburgh International Festival dance, theatre & music reviews: We Are Monchichi | An Untitled Love | Refuge: Detention Dialogues | Arooj Aftab | Czech Philharmonic: Mahler 7 | Bruce Liu

Our latest round-up of Edinburgh International Festival reviews includes a funny and moving piece about being true to yourself, some sensuous romance, and the first Pakistani artist to ever win a Grammy Award. Words by Kelly Apter, Carol Main, Joyce McMillan, Fiona Shepherd and Ken Walton.


We Are Monchichi ****

The Studio

We Are Monchichi. PIC: Fred FoucheWe Are Monchichi. PIC: Fred Fouche
We Are Monchichi. PIC: Fred Fouche

He comes from Italy and lives in Berlin, she comes from Taiwan and lives in Paris. Between them, there are languages aplenty and although they communicate verbally in English, the language of dance is truly their medium.

Shihya Peng and Marco di Nardo regularly lock horns during this fun yet touching piece of dance theatre. Stereotypes abound as she accuses him of being obsessed with pasta and using his hands to gesticulate too much, he bemoans the fact that everything he picks up is made in China (“I’m from Taiwan!” she corrects on more than one occasion). But while they fight like a married couple, warring siblings or school friends, there is always a glint in their eye that says deep down, they respect and care for each other.

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Never is this more evident than when they dance together. On a gorgeous stage adorned with a light-dappled tree, they interweave, catch and hold one another in a moving display of contemporary dance. All of which is beautiful to watch but perhaps less entertaining for the younger audience members this show has been created for. This is a brief concern, however, because We Are Monchichi is also replete with exciting moments of hip hop, performed by both Peng and Nardo in bursts of energetic solo activity. Carefree moments, such as the duo throwing tiny lights at each other, also serve to add comic relief.

At its heart, this show takes a wonderfully child-like look at how we try to connect with others who, on the surface, seem different from us. Both performers dress up in outfits that hinder their ability to express themselves fully, Peng in high heels, Nardo in tight dress shoes. But in the end, they are just themselves – their singular, delightful selves. Kelly Apter


An Untitled Love ****

King’s Theatre

The scene is set – the sofa is covered with protective plastic, a bowl of snacks has been laid out and D’Angelo’s 1995 album Brown Sugar is giving off a welcoming beat. Into this laidback but homely vibe stroll ten dancers, party guests looking for love – or at the very least a hint of romance.

Choreographed by Kyle Abraham in collaboration with the dancers of his New York-based company, the emotion in An Untitled Love may not have a name but it most certainly has a feeling. The characters we see before us interact with an ease and sense of togetherness that typifies the family parties Abraham grew up around. Through this new piece, he set out to capture Black love – not struggle, strife or exploitation (though goodness knows he’d be awash with material for that), but love pure and simple.

There is just one powerful moment of text that hints at the context these people are dancing in. We hear a voice speak about “fear” and their disbelief that Black people in America are feared, when they’re the ones who have been “shot and hung”. Aside from that, this is wall-to-wall romance, with a dose of friendship goading or passing judgement from the sidelines. In one witty scene, we see four women sitting on the sofa, their hands and shoulders lifting and lowering in perfect unison as they express their displeasure at someone’s behaviour.

But it is during the moments of flow, of smooth motion and sensual connection that Abraham’s choreography and the dancers’ skill really come alive. It’s as if D’Angelo’s music is in their bones, pulsing out each spin and sway. Dynamics shift when you least expect it – a trio or duet forms and dissolves just as quickly. Except for the couples who make the cut, the love in their routines only grows stronger with each sensuous step. Kelly Apter


Refuge: Detention Dialogues ***

The Studio

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The EIF’s Refuge season, at The Studio in Potterrow, is a wide-ranging response to recent refugee experience in the UK and beyond, encompassing music and dance as well as theatre; but it will feature few events as simple, austere and hard-hitting as Ice & Fire Actors of Glasgow’s Detention Dialogues, presented with the support of Detainee Visitors Scotland, and the Scottish Refugee Council.

On a dark stage, on two simple chairs, two pairs of actors - plus two eloquent BSL signers - take their places in turn, in two sets of intertwined monologues reflecting the real-life experience of four asylum seekers in the UK who eventually find their way to Glasgow, all played script-in-hand with a such a quiet depth of feeling - by Bruce Fummey, Benjamin Osugo, Michell Hopewell and Nalini Chetty - that it’s almost impossible to listen to their stories without tears.

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Their experience includes profound and cruel institutional bullying by the UK Home Office and detention system, torture by years of uncertainty about their future, and frequent indefinite detention of even though they have committed no crime, yet are often treated far more harshly than prison inmates; small wonder that physical and mental health problems are rife, as people visibly deteriorate under these pressures.

Integral to the event is a post-show discussion, in which panelists and a supportive audience have a chance to express their rage and concern at what is being done in their name, with worse possibly to come, as recent new UK legislation takes effect. For these audiences, though, little about this ongoing scandal and tragedy will come as news; and the challenge is to spread the word more widely, in the hope of finally changing the bitterly negative public attitudes that have, for so long, created the political climate in which these heartbreaking abuses have taken root, and flourished. Joyce McMillan

Refuge season continues until 27 August.


Arooj Aftab ****

Leith Theatre

There was nothing that US-based Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab could say to her rapt Festival audience to puncture the mystical mesmerism of her music – not her running commentary on the status of her takeaway food delivery, not her sidebar on aspiring to have bras thrown on stage, not even the admission that her serious and soulful intonations in Urdu are not examples of Sufi spiritualism (though they certainly give off sacred vibrations) but songs about drinking and failing at love. There was certainly an air of tragic romance about her one English language outing, Last Night.

Aftab is the first Pakistani artist to win a Grammy Award, breaking through globally with her third album, Vulture Prince, around which most of her set was based. Her music straddles east and west – Gyan Riley’s exquisite acoustic guitar playing reverberated across a number of traditions, taking the flamenco journey along the Silk Road with a diversion into New Age ambience, while double bassist Petros Kamplanis supplied plangent jazz textures over which Aftab’s entrancing legato notes hovered sorrowfully. Even the “banger” with which she closed her main set was built to enchant. She brought the red roses but her audience were seduced from the first note. Fiona Shepherd


Czech Philharmonic: Mahler 7 ****

Usher Hall

Of all orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic ought to know what it’s doing when untangling the turmoil of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, having premiered the work under the composer’s own direction in 1908. Sunday’s Edinburgh Festival performance by today’s Czech Philharmonic confirmed that lasting bloodline, in this case under the overarching vision of current musical director, Russian-born Semyon Bychkov.

It was a performance that grew assiduously from the outset. The undulating darkness of the opening bars, the powerful awakening by the ripe tenor horn, and that initial first movement journey through fiery, challenging contradiction, were all the more powerful for the tantalising restraint Bychkov applied to its climactic peaks.

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That same coiled spring effect fed through the ensuing movements from different perspectives. The shadowy, surreal mood swings of the first Nachtmusik found a telling response in the corresponding second, a sun-kissed serenade coloured by guitar and mandolin, though pointedly not without its troubling undercurrents. Between these, Bychkov positioned the central Scherzo as the demonic, unpredictable cocktail it is.

Everything pointed towards a blistering finale, its promise duly delivered in a cacophony of brass chorales, cowbells and exhilarating, side-stepping surprises. A powerful resolution, but still coloured with an arresting ambiguity. Ken Walton


Bruce Liu *****

Queen’s Hall

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Being awarded First Prize in the 2021 Chopin International Piano Competition as the outright winner amongst fierce competition, is an indication in itself that Canadian pianist Bruce Liu is something special. In a programme that was ideally constructed to show off the 25 year old’s exceptional talents, he not only performed with flawless technique but with an innate artistry that shoots straight to the heart of the music.

While a set of six pieces by Rameau was originally written for harpsichord, they sounded clean and clear on the Queen’s Hall’s Steinway, with Liu striking a limpid simplicity that’s far from simple to achieve. His virtuosity was tested to the limit in Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, a pianistic take on Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Its variations on the seduction duet, Là ci darem la mano, and a fantastical arrangement of the ‘champagne’ aria were a triumph of Lisztian showmanship, dazzling and brilliant, in Liu’s delivery.

Also heard in Chopin’s Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Mozart’s tune was the basis of a bravura makeover, Liu enjoying its scampers up and down the keyboard and throwaway decorative passages with flourish and élan. Carol Main