Roberta Jean – Edinburgh Fringe dance

At City Chambers, Edinburgh Royal Mile, 16 – 17 Aug 2018.

The setting of Edinburgh’s City Chambers is an unusual one for a contemporary dance show. Brocade by Roberta Jean is part of the Made in Scotland showcase and the Dance Base programme, and she and her three dancers challenge us with their “loom of movement glosses that, when woven, makes a numinous tissue”-  in the words of the programme.

The broad rectangular performance area has audience on the two long sides. At one end is the window overlooking St Giles Cathedral and the lights of the clock tower comes on in the gloaming as the house lights dim.

St Giles

Standing with their backs to us, clad in black shorts, baggy T shirts and matching knee-length socks (as in L-E-V Dance Company’s Love Cycle), one woman starts a jump-skip, a regular rhythmic and simple step. One by one the others join in and they allow their labouring breath to be audible and their facial expressions to be naturalistic as they slowly turn while doing it.

In unison, they continue. Vertically they pound the floor like human pneumatic drills, creating their own soundtrack with foot-percussion, arms and torsos relaxed and still as in Irish dance, so they carry on for the majority of the piece. This pedestrian movement, and the few motifs in which the feet or hands have minds of their own leading the rest of the body a merry dance, is reminiscent of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown at the Judson Church and New York lofts of the 1960s. (Rainer said that her work “sometimes takes the form of a disorientated body in which one part doesn’t know what the other part is doing.”)

Sometimes they zig zag, sometimes they smile. One peels off and dances behind the audience. They could be stitching an enormous embroidery, stopping every now and then to make a knot, bouncing on in their patterns, never stopping despite the sweat caused by the neverending pace.

Roberta Jean

The repetition allows us to relax as we watch and notice the subtle alterations – facing north-north-east not north-east for example. There are distinctions between them: one drops slightly more heavily than the next; a second holds her hand at nose- rather than mouth-level. Is it in this idiosyncracy that the message lies? Is it that however hard we try to keep on doing what is expected, to ‘repeat after me’, to ‘toe the line’, we are all human and have our own personalities?


Folding Echoes – Edinburgh Fringe dance

At Dance Base, Grassmarket, Edinburgh. 16 – 19 and 21 – 26 Aug 2018.

The Grassmarket, Edinburgh, Scotland

Folding Echoes might be a response to some people’s questions about contemporary dance – what does it all mean? In the first few minutes, Joseph Lee bangs his head on a chair. Then he sticks it in the door! These simple moves tell of serious frustration, perhaps with the audience for asking this question, or perhaps with the more impenetrable aspects of the genre itself.

Born in Hong Kong and a trained accountant, Lee undertook a masters at the renowned London Contemporary Dance School (The Place) in London and has toured and won awards around the world. Lee manages that rare thing: to be serious and to poke fun at his subject in one show.

Many of the amusements are in the script. He starts by addressing the audience as if giving an after-performance talk about what he’d just done, but he also deconstructs movement phrases which mean ‘love’ and ‘hate’. Using ultra clear gesture he goes on to develop these moves, adeptly demonstrating how some choreographers initiate dance.

What follows is a duet with a chair and, later, a pair of shiny red stilettos: “Of course dance can address some contemporary problem or issue. One of them is gender” he says. We laugh again. This cannot be other than a reference to the macabre Hans Christian Anderson tale and film of the same name in which a vain girl is punished by shoes which never stop dancing even when her feet in them are amputated. He seems

Occassionally there is a hint of the ‘101 things to do with a prop’ exercise; and as with many choreographers  presenting at the Festival this year, he uses extreme repetition, angst, manic shuddering, and painful falls (ow! I felt that) as knees strike dance floor. However, he performs much of this with irony, and, cleverly, we don’t always know which side of that line he has stepped over.

When he suddenly rushes offstage through the emergency exit, leaving only a slant of bright behind him (he plays with light very effectively throughout the show), our attention is drawn to the paraphernalia of the theatre that we usually pretend isn’t there. And so we are left with interesting questions about the nature of performance, the art of making dance, the relationship between the audience and who we watch. We are in admiration, and we are smiling because he simultaneously achieves this and sends himself up: “bullshit, bullshit” he says.

Letters for Peace – Edinburgh Fringe music

at Out of the Blue, Dalmeny Street, Edinburgh 16 – 17 Aug 2018. 5 star

Graeme Stephen presents Letters for Peace with the McFall’s Chamber String Trio as part of the Made in Scotland programme at Out of the Blue in Leith’s Dalmeny Street. It is a full theatre experience involving voice, song, photos and words with music dominating. In Stephen’s words, “I was at a gig in Wales and read a book about conscientious objectors during World War I. I was really touched and decided to write music for it.” The instrumentals are singing the words of the book.

This complicated, multi-layered piece shows all angles of the situation, and each part has a quality and tone which is relative to it. It is emotionally moving – struggling and insistent harmonies play while facts are displayed: 20,000 troops killed on the first day, 623,907 either wounded or dead at its conclusion. It begins and ends with a passage first spoken, then yearningly sung by Transylvanian Lizabett Russo in a pure trebling voice, “Last night I had the strangest dream and saw a mighty room full of men, and the paper they were signing said they would never fight again, and when a million were signed… put an end to war.”

Stephen, hunched over his amplified acoustic guitar, starts softly, accompanied by long slow notes drawn from the strings of Robert McFall (violin), Brian Schiele (viola) and Su-a Lee (cello). The violin takes over the high, thin melody and then the cello comes through, deep and bass. Swelling surges of sound billow and build as they play in unison, more powerful. The different instruments are a perfect foil for each other

This introduction heralds the first bleached yet naturalistic photos of the trenches – a man sits writing, absorbed, during a bleak lull. Alongside this: “I wish to offer a brief statement of my faith…I will not poison or kill…. surer proof of those I love, than slaughter those others love” is a delicate solo with echoes of Spanish guitar.

There are hints of musical influences from that era, juxtapositions of syncopation, jazz echoes, classical overtones, Indian cadences, and, at times, more of a folk / pop sound – all is subtle, a really interesting interweaving of styles evoking wars of different eras.

Stories are told by each instrument, all being played alongside each other. Sorrow and grief are evoked with the strong surety of the message clearly coming through the composition. The music pleads because not everyone by any means agrees, it must be forceful at times.

Graeme Stephen

In the tougher visuals three men huddle in a trench; a single man gazes out of a cell window; sombre faces gaze, dazed in their uniforms to the script: “War will not cease until men refuse to fight.” The cello plays pizzicato: simple but angry and atonal. The four players are beautifully timed together and perfectly match the spoken court speech,” If you find me guilty, you will inflict punishment on a man who has not committed any crime.”

Here are sonorous tones, clashing and challenging the ear; next, lonely and mournful, reflecting those who didn’t fight and therefore stand separate from the general population. Often the music quietens when the words are spoken, but passages repeat and then we can focus on a merging of the sound and meaning, each taking its own important place by turn.

This arrangement does two things. It encapsulates the complex emotions, and it creates the discord and disharmony of the men’s struggle. We are in no doubt about the seriousness of the subject – “The most fruitful outcome (for mankind) (Bertrand Russell) does not depend on force” – the strident strumming and chords, with the cello providing a rhythmic baseline, mirrors this – but the musicians appear to relish playing together and there is also hope and a joyfulness at the prospect of ending all wars.

Wayne McGregor – Autobiography

Autobiography was at the Edinburgh International Festival 11 – 13 Aug 2018.

An autobiography is an account of one’s own life but not usually the actual DNA. In Autobiography, Wayne McGregor the choreographer, has sampled the data from his genetic make-up and used this to organise the structure of his latest work. This multi award winning dancer, who incidentally worked on the Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire film, has a reputation for pushing the conceptual boundaries of his art into new directions, particularly with regard to science. Like the famous connection between Merce Cunningham and John Cage in the 1980s, McGregor utilises chance – the order of the sections in each performance is chosen by the computer keeping the piece alive.

Most of the soundtrack is by Jlin, long-time collaborator. Like the steps themselves, her electronic music uses a multitude of sources, sampling white noise, screeches, bells and whistles (actually) and found sound. Guantanamo has lyrics: “You don’t want to hurt anyone,” “But I do, and I’m sorry”. There are disco beats, techno pulses and, contrastingly, the Concerto Grosso in D Major from Arcangelo Corelli to which they strut and plump their chests, torsos concave one moment and convex the next, hands almost holding the sides of the head. It is the perfect companion to McGregor’s impersonal, repetitive movement.

Lighting, set and choreography are intrinsically connected. A section reminiscent of a torture chamber features the overhead ranks of pyramid-shaped strip lights lowered almost to the ground with just enough space for bodies to lie underneath, writhing. In the second half, there are very bright spots which shine beautiful strong beams through which the dancers move mesmerically.

There is not the same sense of cutting edge in the choreography. Much of it derives from classical ballet (McGregor has been resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet, since 2006) albeit mostly at high speed: spinning attitudes and extreme developes on the run, standing splits like herons on speed. Then there is yoga: a knee lifts into a standing half lotus, the rounded head of a partner slipping under its angle to lift the whole structure up, turn it and put it back down. Legs wide with knees deeply bent to the sides, lower arms circling, outward facing palms and finger mudras remind of Indian Classical Dance. The dancers double as gymnasts, excitably tumbling through one-handed cartwheels, forwards and backward rolls. There are pedestrian moves – cutting and ducking, rolling and leaping, run, walk, stop, start.

Wayne McGregor

Though the dancers touch and push, there is almost no sense of humanity, no identification sought or sympathy given. This is ironic given it was created from McGregor himself, his cellular patterns forming the underlying mesh on which the entire piece stands.

Gerda Stevenson – Quines

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 12 Aug 2018. There is more in the Revolting Women series. Here is a link.

What an enthusiastic woman is Gerda Stevenson! Sitting alongside Herald journalist Jackie McGlone, she describes the inspiration for, selection process of, and reads from her new book Quines in the Writer’s Retreat at the Book Festival. Quines: meaning a lass; a woman; sounding like ‘queen’,thereby lending an “aristocracy of the spirit”.

McGlone’s eloquent introduction describes Stevenson as “A woman of a thousand skills”, she is an actress from the popular Shetland TV series, poet, writer, lecturer, singer and songwriter. Stevenson, in turn, describes the noble, reconstructed and ancient head of a young woman on the cover of her book: “…she could have been my daughter… Does history really separate us, or does it reveal how much we have in common?”

Gerda Stevenson

In her book (“it feels like their book” says Stevenson in that familiar way many women have of humbly attributing praise to others), she presents poems of deceased Scottish women such as Isabel Emslie Hutton, psychiatrist and doctor; Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library; Mina Ray, one of Scotland’s first interpreter trainers; and Betsy Miller, ship’s captain. Standing to deliver poems in Scots and English with an open countenance, she also includes work which honours the Gaelic, using its syntax and lilt.

In the course of her research she unearthed women from all walks of life, an all-female football team, and many fascinating women from Dundee. She gives them a voice, manages to get inside them: in Demerara a slave girl from the plantations brought to “the Black Isle of white people”, she writes. “her spine stiffened in her corset when I declined the sugar.”; and after her twins were stillborn, Mary Stuart’s (Queen of Scots) voice tells us, “tho milk’s ae buckin frae ma breists unner ma lace an steys”.

In a relaxed and sisterly way she laughs with McGlone, sharing personal information: “I’m a Hibs supporter”, and “I’m very interested in Robert Owen’s Utopian thinking”. She is also serious about slavery (tackling it, for example, in Terpsichore about Maud Sulter, “I’m your morning’s sport, a clandestine delight, …. but I’m only marking time; one day ….you’ll be dancing to another’s tune.”  Most of the information Stevenson gives us is in the introduction of the book, but she brings it alive with her erudite charm.

book festival

For other women’s literature events, see also the Revolting Women theme at the Edinburgh International Book festival

This year’s Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture will be given by Gerda Stevenson. Details here.

Graphic Novel of Women – Book Festival

At the Edinburgh International Book festival August 11 2018. There are other events in the Revolting Women series – here is the link

We Shall Fight Until We Win’, A Century of Pioneering Political Women, the Graphic Anthology is at the centre of the Book festival event on 11 August 2018, which looks at the Graphic Novel of Women. Representatives from both Glasgow based BHP Comics and 404 Ink join Chair, Jenny Niven who is Literature Director at Creative Scotland, to discuss this newest disruption in contemporary publishing and the place of this book in the oeuvre of women’s non-fiction. The micro-comic art book publishing and the graphic novel sector are also discussed.

Asking about the genesis of this “slim but powerful volume”, Niven encourages Laura Jones, co-founder of 404 and contributing writer of the Nicola Sturgeon strip, to expand on the way it was crowdfunded through a Kickstarter project, and she stresses the impressively short timescale (nine months) in which they turned it around.

Graphic novel of Women

Heather Palmer, marketing and PR Officer at BHP Comics talks about the potential of the volume to make social change and how it gets women into publishing for the first time. “The great thing with visual work like this is that it is a sort of shorthand” describing how the setting and clothes for example do not need to be spelled out and are therefore easily accessible to school children, which is why it has been directed at schools as well as the general public. Heather mentions that “women are buying it for when their daughters grow up”.

Ever since the Stripped theme began in 2014, graphic novels have been “a really important, joyful part of the festival” Roland Gulliver, Associate Director of the International Book Festival who grew up with 2000 AD and Spiderman, told me. “There is an enthusiasm in the publishing sector”, he went on, “they love being part of an International literary event like this, not being ghettoised”.

book festival themes

This is not a superhero book, no spandex, so sorry about that” says Sha Nazir, art director at BHP Comics, but the women collected here (Emmeline Pankhurst, Beatrice Webb, Noor Inayat Khan, Betty Boothroyd et al) may well become superheros for the next generations as a result of this book.

See also, the Revolting Women series at the Book Festival.

Janice Galloway on Muriel Spark

Photo: Muriel Spark, writer. 1918 – 2006.

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival 11th August 2018. There are many other events in the Muriel Spark theme at the Book Festival this year. Here is the link.

Muriel Spark is one of the Book Festival’s 2018 themes. This most entertaining event is chaired by Jenny Niven, Head of Literature at Creative Scotland, and it is Janice Galloway who gives forth on the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A tour de force, Galloway is a consummate performer, delighting us with cockney accents, flamboyant quotes and well-timed biographical info. ‘You made the right choice!’ Niven tells us in her introduction. Galloway’s first novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing, was published in 1989 and followed by more stories, libretti, non-fiction, poetry – you name it.

Not just amusing, but also a veritable wealth of knowledge on the subject, Galloway arrives with a great grin and only a little nervous knee wobbling. This is the centenary year of Mrs Spark, as Ms Galloway refers to her, and it has ignited divers projects around the world notably here in Spark’s home city. Galloway is lecturing, workshopping and producing her own work in response: “delving deep” as Niven put it.

Looking into the audience with penetrating gaze, Galloway elucidated Spark’s life: born in 1918, she only started writing when 40, after a lively time as wife to Syney Oswald Spark (“the only thing she liked about him was his name”). In ‘Rhodesia’ he threatened to shoot her (many of her short stories are about such goings on amongst the ex-pat community) and she hid herself and her son for 4 years before she could return to “old blighty” in 1944. This prompted her to develop an ‘it was for the best’ attitude, stressed Galloway, in her fast but exceptionally clear delivery.

Janice Galloway


Spark, she continues, changed what was expected from women’s writing, coming at it from a female point of view, in a common sense “no horsing about” kind of a way and signalling that, contrary to the fiction which previously had been published, women could write about anything.

Galloway’s gift is a reading from The Ballad of Peckham Rye bringing the characters to life with slow circular sweeps of her arm and perfect London accents. “The guests in the pews rustled as if they were all women”, she reads. It is an absolutely beautiful rendering.

She discusses Jean Brodie of course, gives advice on writing, and more. With a single finger held up to emphasise her words, she tells us that there was “no bigwiggery” about Muriel Spark.

book festival