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Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Liss Fain Dance

by Kate Snedeker

August 7, 2006 -- Aurora Nova, St. Stephen's Church, Edinburgh

At the Edinburgh Fringe, attending a dance performance can be a hit or miss experience, with many a program sunk by uneven dancing, amateurish sets and/or tiny venues.  However, in Liss Fain Dance at the Southside Theater, Edinburgh dance fans have a rare chance to see a professional company with superb dancers and quality production design on a spacious stage.

Though Liss Fain Dance was founded back in 1988, this is the company's first trip to Scotland.  For their Fringe debut, they've chosen to perform a trio of dances by founder and namesake Liss Fain.  Her choreography, with its constant movement and deft interweaving of multiple groupings, is instantly appealing in the intimate setting of the Southside Theatre.

"The Unknown Land" was the first of three pieces which were performed in smooth succession, split only by momentary blackouts.  Incorporating the full company -- three men and six women -- the dance is set to a score by the recently deceased Gyorgy Ligeti.  In her program notes, Fain says the piece is about "great tensions" which occur in "a time of great upheaval", and these tensions are played out in a series of pas de deux, with the other dancers forming a "Greek Chorus" in the background.  The idea of having 'background' dancers may at first seem highly distracting but, far from drawing away from the duets, the chorus acts as a living backdrop. They provide a slow, steady movement to contrast against the more complex, eye-catching dance in the pas de deux.

In her company, Fain has gathered together a group of dancers with an impeccable grounding in classical and modern dance, and challenged them to use skills from both.  Her dancers rarely stop moving, but often start moving slowly, perhaps up out of  a deep, angled lunge, then suddenly but smoothly hurtle off in a series of quick chaine turns. Pirouttes in attitude sometimes with jutting feet are a frequent motif.  The pas deux, which involve pairings of men and of women as well as the more traditional man and woman, are intimate with much interlocking of limbs, but oddly lacking in passion.  There was a powerful intensity in the dancing and a complete devotion to every move, but I didn't feel any unique connection between the various pairings of dancers.  We were seeing archetypes, not individuals who you could connect with or assign characteristics.  Odd perhaps but certainly not a criticism.

The lack of distinct personalities in this piece and the others seemed a shame because Fain's dancers are a fabulous group of distinct and individual dancers.  In "The Unknown Land" my eye was drawn to Jamielyn Duggan, with her intense eyes and long, lithe body, as well as the company's male trio. Bryan Ketron, a tall lean blond and Jose Campos, short, compact and dark, were a study in contrast, but equally appealing in all three ballets. Duggan is also the head of Eimaj Designs, which is credited for the costumes for this piece.

The second ballet, "When Still", is a triptych of sorts with movements set to music by Claudio Monteverdi and Chanticleer.  In the first "panel", titled "When Still", two men and women, in bright patterned leotards and chiffon skirts for the women, flow in and out of trios, two dancers often mirroring or dancing in unison, while the single dancer behind diverged in steps, but not tempo.  The only slight discord was a repeated sequence in the duo with Ketron and Campos, where Campos would hook a leg on Ketron's arm and then raise it into a split to release it before returning to two feet.  Campos did not look comfortable in the highest part of the devloppe -- perhaps at the edge of his natural flexibility -- and as such there was a jarring hitch in the motion. The second section "Lament", with a trio of women in longer skirts, was followed by the striking "Beata".  With haunting, echoing choir music sung by Chanticleer, and white, fluttery costumes, the piece has a sense of devotion.  Neither the choreography nor the costumes involve any religious motif, but there's a feeling of great age and power.  The Chanticleer music was clearly recorded in a church, with a deep resonance that pervades the dancing. You can almost feel the coolness of ancient stone and that sense of great wonder and deep faith that strikes one upon entering a monumental cathedral.

The final piece, "River at the End of the Land" was dedicated to the score's composer Hamza El Din, who died in late May.  The score has a distinctive but not overwhelming Middle Eastern influence with a silent beginning unfortunately marred by the sound of belly dance drums in the adjoining theatre (note to Southside Theater manager: make sure your walls are sound proof or schedule performances to avoid auditory conflicts -- it's distracting for the audience, and surely also for the dancers).

The nine dancers were attired in tan tops and shiny golden-coppery trousers designed by James Meyer who also designed the costumes for the first piece. Here my eye was caught by Joseph Copley and an unidentified female dancer.  Copley has the most daring and fluidity of the three men, flinging his body into perpetual motion.  In him I saw the most personality and a bit of flair. The unknown woman, tall and slender, had extraordinary control, and projected a sense of inner serenity -- an intense peacefulness.

This was definitely a fine evening and a wonderful way to start the Fringe. Fain's choreography, though it felt a bit "same-y" by the hour's end, was always engrossing and dynamic, and her dancers exceptional.  The package was completed by Matthew Antaky's simple backdrop of three white cloth hangings and his simple but highly effective lighting.

Liss Fain Dance performs at the Zoo Southside, 6pm daily except Tuesdays through August 21.

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