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Edinburgh International Festival - 'Scottish Ballet'

'Ride the Beast', 'For MG: THe Movie', 'Fearful Symmetries'

by Kate Snedeker

August 19, 2007 -- Edinburgh Playhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland

The Edinburgh Playhouse audience might be forgiven for being a bit surprised by the afternoon's on-stage fare. The Scottish Ballet has been moving towards a more diverse, contemporary based repertory, but this year's Festival program may have been a step too far in the non-balletic direction, and too much of the same thing – three contemporary pieces, all with contemporary music and based around a group of 10-15 dancers.  Nonetheless, the high quality of the performances in the three pieces, "Ride the Beast", "For MG: The Movie" and "Fearful Symmetries" confirmed Scottish Ballet's place among the upper echelon of dance companies.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the program is Stephen Petronio's "Ride the Beast", a fascinating 26 minutes of dance set to Radiohead's distinctive sound.  The cast of 13 includes three distinct groups and a solo male, the quartets each distinct in the colour of Benjamin Cho's costumes.  Cho's signature braided silk fringes appeared in the form of wing and tail-like fringes giving the dancers in black, white or multicoloured leotards the appearance of exotic birds.  The avian theme continued in Petronio's choreography, which took full advantage of the dancers' balletic training and contemporary talents.  Petrionio stretches his dancers into long shapes with sharp edges such as a flat foot or angled arm.  The effect of the movement is highlighted by the decision to use bare feet and streamlined costumes, which allow the each dancer’s line to extend from hip to pointed toe.  The final image a ballet leaves is the most important, and Petronio gives his audiences vision to remember:  thrown into shadow by intense backlighting, the dancers one by one freeze into a pose, their clustered bodies coming together to create an eye-catching shadow-scene.

Ashley Page's top contemporary pair, Paul Liburd and Diana Loosemore, set the electric tone, and Eve Mutso's performance again helped to beg the question of why she remains just a soloist.  However, it was Gregory Dean who caught my eye.  A tall but elegantly proportioned dancer, Dean exudes a silent strength.  The choreography emphasized his long line and superb control, and it's no surprise that Dean has just been promoted to coryphée. 

Trisha Brown's "For MG: The Movie" may have been a welcome challenge for Ashley Page's dancers, but it was too much, too different to be an appropriate centerpiece for this Festival program.  Alvin Curran's electronic score together with Brown's sets created an eerily realistic underground world, a fan of sunbeams filtering down through an unseen grate and the sounds of the outside world echoing in from above, interspersed with a plaintive melody.  The sounds are at first urban – rattling train, clanging tin can, children's screams, then reflect nature – bird hoots, a buzzing bug and a dog barking. 

The dancing, however, does not match up to the world that has been created.  The program begins with two dancers standing still on the stage, another dancer running relentless circles around the stage, stopping, starting, slowing down, speeding up.  It's interesting for a few minutes, but soon it becomes relentless, tedious and the audience was visibly restless.  Eventually other dancers join the action, appearing and disappearing, all moveing in very slow motion.  Tama Berry and Diana Loosemore tackled the fiendish slow-motion choreography with impressive dedication, though occasionally their poses seemed jarringly out of synch suggesting that they needed a few more rehearsals to master Brown's very different movement style. Brown's tan unitards were also highly unflattering on all but the slimmest dancers, especially in the dimmer moments of Spencer Brown's lighting scheme. The juxtaposition of movement with stillness was intriguing, but at over 30 minutes, the piece dragged and ceased to hold the attention. Set as part of a trilogy of Brown pieces where it could be seen in the context of Brown's use of modern techniques like release techniques (mentioned, but frustratingly not explained in the program notes), "For MG: The Movie" might have worked.  However, for the Playhouse audience, the majority of whom are unlikely to have much experience with modern dance and may have expected a more balletic program, the piece failed to connect.  With Trisha Brown's own company appearing in a week's time, it might have been best to leave the modern dance to them.

After an evening of Forsythe choreography to taped music, and sitting through the electronic, taped scores used by both Petronio and Brown, it was an overwhelming relief to hear John Adams’ "Fearful Symmetries" being played live by the Scottish Ballet Orchestra (under Nicholas Kok's experienced baton).   Named for the Adams composition, Ashley Page's fast paced ballet was a pleasant if not entirely memorable ending to the evening. Page's dancers skim across the stage in fast synchrony, clumping together and dissipating out into the wings.  Like Petronio, Page uses colour to group his dancers, but while the vibrant hues were visually striking, the skirt like shorts looked silly on the men.  Far more attractive in their simplicity were the women's black tunics, which gave the ballet a sleek elegance without disrupting the dancers' lines.  Erik Cavallari, as the male soloist, looked in his element. Not surprisingly then, this is one of the best performances I have seen from Cavallari, who sped through the swift steps with an unforced, slick power.

"Fearful Symmetries" was a welcome change from the forced slowness of the previous piece, but my attention, and I fear that of many audience members, was diminished by an excessively long interval which pushed the afternoon towards an ungainly 3 hour length.  The reason for the long interval was apparently to allow the switch of sets –  George Souglides' huge hanging arc on stage right, which frames Page's ballet, certainly is integral to the piece, but the interval needs to be shortened if this is to be a successful program.  Regardless of the interval, the 30-minute length of the piece seemed to stretch Page's choreographic inventiveness – I have found his most striking pieces to be his short pas de deuxs.  The lighting was by Peter Mumford.

I continue to be unimpressed by the decision to have the Scottish Ballet perform in the gloomy, poorly designed confines of the Edinburgh Playhouse.  This afternoon's program was also marred by what would appear to be a sound system ill equipped to deal with the electronic music – the sound was fuzzy and indistinct at times.  I am also increasingly frustrated by the tendency to blast taped music to a near painful decibel level.  The quality of the music does NOT improve with decibel level and music that is loud enough to distract the audience only takes away from the performers.  This awful habit is by no means limited to the International Festival, but it is surely NOT helped by the vastness of the Playhouse, which undoubtedly necessitates higher volume levels to project the score all the way out to the distant balconies.

This marks the end of my International Festival dance experience, and it stands out as the least impressive of the last four years.  Both ballet companies – Scottish Ballet and Royal Ballet of Flanders – are at the top of their game, but the overlapping scheduling and repetitive repertoires – Forsythe was superb, but it all begins to melt together when you blend it with Petronio, Brown and Page – made for an un-fulfilling two days of dance going.  I would remind the International Festival organizers that Edinburgh suffers no shortage of superb contemporary dance – the Alvin Ailey Company, which visits in September, runs rings around Scottish Ballet in terms of contemporary competence and repertoire – but it's good ballet we are sorely lacking.  Bring up Balanchine and Robbins, Forsythe and Petipa, Wheeldon and Ratmansky, Welch and Dawson.  Australian Ballet anybody….

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