Edinburgh International Festival reviews: A Wee Journey | Les Siècles | Dreamachine | Martin Hayes & The Common Ground Ensemble | Golda Schultz & Jonathan Ware

A literal journey through dance, an unforgettable Rite of Spring and a fantastic voyage inside the mind all feature in our latest round-up of EIF events. Reviews by Kelly Apter, Ken Walton, Joyce McMillan, Jim Gilchrist and Carol Main

A Wee Journey ***

The Studio, until 20 August

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All the dancers in A Wee Journey, plus choreographer Farah Saleh and composer/musician Oğuz Kaplangı, have lived experience of migration. Which not only gives the work gravitas and meaning, but sends us looking for clues in each move they make or note they play. Saleh works predominantly with gestures, so the work is ripe for exploration: a hand strategically placed before the eyes blocks out an unwelcome view; a head is cradled in trauma; or arms stretch, luxuriating in a newfound freedom.

A Wee Journey
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During these moments, the intent is clear and Kaplangı’s electric guitar ricochets around the theatre, echoing the pleasure or pain. Other times, the correct emotional response is less obvious. A section where blindfolded dancers beat each other with bin bags could be a fun game (coming as it does after Kaplangı reminisces about attending a wedding in his native Turkey) or a violent interaction. Looking at the faces of the dancers, it’s hard to tell.

But if it’s clarity we’re looking for, the closing section fuelled by dancer Kemono L.Riot hits the spot. First sharing his story in an African language nobody in the room can understand (he checks), he tries to communicate the same scenario through movement. When this too is misunderstood, he tries again and again, eventually joined by another dancer who helps tell his tale. It’s a powerful moment of sharing and connection, and perhaps hints at other ways the four dancers could have come together more.

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Across the show, everyone has their own experience to impart, but Saleh and Kaplangı are well-schooled in keeping things universal. So much so, that at one point all five performers walk to the front of the stage and Kaplangı invites us to close our eyes and remember our own personal journeys. Kelly Apter

Les Siècles *****

Usher Hall

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring changed the course of musical history: discuss. After experiencing this extraordinary Festival performance by the specialist French orchestra Le Siècles, under its founder and conductor François-Xavier Roth, there doesn’t seem much point anymore. In just over half-an-hour of terrorising magic they sold us Stravinsky’s infamous 1913 ballet score in a way that few, if any, have before. Not a second passed where we weren’t glued to the edge of our seats.

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Strangely, it opened with a soupçon of fragility, the solo bassoon beckoning us hesitatingly. Was that a result of the orchestra’s practice of performing early 20th century music on instruments dating from the same period? Hard to tell, but the resulting allure was instantly seductive and palpable.

So was the deluge of demonic, ritualistic intoxication that followed, emanating paradoxically from the uncompromising precision demanded by Roth. The characterful lucidity with which Stravinsky’s myriad of entangled motifs emerged – again those juicy period instruments – was a kaleidoscopic revelation, adding to the unstoppable electrifying energy of the performance. Dynamic contrasts were fearsome in the extreme. Even the dramatic silences crackled with knife-edge tension and feverish anticipation. No question, Les Siècles’s Rite of Spring will go down in the annals of Festival history as simply unforgettable. Those who missed it (the entire Usher Hall upper circle was empty) should kick themselves.

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But nor should we forget that the programme opened with Lili Boulanger’s cantata Faust et Hélène, also written in 1913 as her successful bid to become the first female winner of the Prix de Rome, and five years before her early death. It is a concoction of influences, notably Wagner and Debussy, eagerly peppered with new age promise. Radiant singing from soloists Julien Behr, Véronique Gens and Jean-Sébastien Bou confirmed its full-blooded theatricality. Ken Walton

Dreamachine ***

Murrayfield Ice Rink, until 25 September

Dreamachine is billed as part of the EIF theatre programme; but the only theatre going on is the kind conjured up in your own brain, when it is subjected to new and disorientating visual experiences. Created by Collective Act as part of the UK-wide Unboxed festival, Dreamachine is currently playing in London, Cardiff and Belfast, as well as Edinburgh; and its aim is to bring arts, neuroscience and psychology together, to offer visitors the unique experience of a journey into their own minds.

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The preliminaries are therefore as time-consuming as the experience, as a series of guides check up on our medical fitness, pack our bags and shoes away into lockers, and finally lead us through towards the circular Dreamachine itself, where we are seated on a comfortable shared sofa, given blankets, and talked through a series of breathing exercises, before the 25-minute experience finally begins.

What Dreamachine does is to project flashing white light onto our closed eyelids at such a range of different frequencies, all accompanied by a vivid and beautiful electronic soundtrack, that our brains immediately begin to conjure up different colours and patterns, from zigzags and stripes to quilted or chessboard effects.

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We are told that everyone’s experience is different; for me it was all shifting kaleidoscope-like patterns of colours – sometimes like fall into a different dimension – plus a hint round the periphery of my mind conjuring something more familiar out of the experience, the walls of a room, or rows of watching figures on either side.

And afterwards, in the chill-out space, there is time to draw or discuss what we’ve seen, to compare notes, and to read more about the science behind the project; in an experience that finally seems more like a neurological experiment than any kind of performance. It is fascinating, strangely restful and thought-provoking about how differently we all perceive the world, and perhaps, in the best sense of the word, a little tangential to the Festival’s core business of bringing people together, to share the experience of great art. Joyce McMillan

Martin Hayes & The Common Ground Ensemble *****

Leith Theatre

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East Clare fiddler Martin Hayes remains a master of the slow burn, dwelling studiedly on a tune’s phrasing before gradually working up to a hypnotic pace. His Common Ground Ensemble, drawn from jazz, classical and traditional backgrounds, provide a richly complementary tonal palette – cellist Kate Ellis, pianist Cormac McCarthy, guitarist Kyle Sanna and Brian Donnellan on concertina and bouzouki.

Take the familiar reel Glen of Aherlow, Hayes exploring it unhurriedly over a rising cello figure, McCarthy adding bright flurries of piano and the concertina lending an earthiness before the tension is cranked up over a thrum of guitar and bouzouki, eventually climaxing full pelt with the great O’Rourke’s Reel.

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Thoroughly rooted in tradition, Hayes doesn’t baulk at risk-taking, hence the limpid yearning of O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music dissolves into a tangle of guitar and piano wire dissonances that morph gradually back into a life-affirming jig.

“Melody in itself has no politics,” Hayes remarks during one of his engagingly digressive preambles and introduces a stately hornpipe, evolved via west Clare from an Orange march, before shifting into a characteristic tune sequence reminiscent of his renowned Gloaming band, foot slapping, bow flickering for an exhilarating final stretch. Jim Gilchrist

Golda Schultz & Jonathan Ware *****

Queen’s Hall

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Would there have been more of an audience at the Queen’s Hall on Wednesday if it had been Robert Schumann’s music being heard rather than that of his wife, Clara? It is a difficult question to answer but the woefully small numbers for South African soprano Golda Schultz and Texas-born pianist Jonathan Ware’s programme of music written by women – This Be Her Verse – would indicate that parity is still some way off for female composers on the concert platform.

In what could well be the most exquisitely beautiful music to be heard in the Festival, Nadia Boulanger’s Cantique touched straight to the heart with the simplicity of her setting of Maeterlinck’s text. In the three settings leading to it, Schultz and Ware were so much more than singer and accompanist, their subtle shading spinning long smooth lines suspended in shimmering light. Clara Schumann’s songs, including a Burns setting, revealed her extraordinary gift for writing melody.

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Schutz and Ware approached them with gentle warmth, creating a distinctive sense of intimacy and grace. In contrast was the artists’ own commission from composer Kathleen Tagg and poet Lila Palmer, whose wit and humour in perceiving the world from the female perspective was both clever and telling. Carol Main