Mixed Media Performance: Qi

‘Qi’ by the UAL Performance Laboratory at the Edinburgh Festival fringe 2019

**** (4 stars)

Five, white-clad, young performers stand meditatively around the stage, still and grounded. A simple inverted V shape stands at an angle in the centre, a hill peak perhaps, throwing a shadow on the floor. Birds sing. With eyes sometimes closed as they sit cross legged, or inhabiting monk-like patience as they carry out tasks – bending and lifting, sifting and gathering – the cast arrange and rearrange images before us, conjuring at once a paddy field or the patterned sand of a Zen garden.

UAL Performance Laboratory's performance of Qi at the Edinburgh fringe
Creating a Zen garden effect

In Qi (say chee, or ki) from the UAL Performance Laboratory, conceived by Anqi Zhao , sound and light are as important as the mostly pedestrian movement. The show was devised collaboratively and recalls the everyday actions of early Trisha Brown pieces (as part of the early Judson Memorial Church in New York, she is currently performing at Jupiter Artland). The company have drawn on Chinese philosophical concepts: Yin and Yang, life mirroring nature, and this peculiarly indefinable idea of qi. Qi is believed to be the building block of all of creation, and bestows the moving, transforming, holding, protecting and warming functions to the body and the wider Universe, ideas which were clearly used in the choreography. 

The show is innovatively designed. Rectangles of foam are manipulated to form variations of the i ching or the various strokes of Chinese calligraphy. As the actors carried and rearranged them, they made both pleasing sculptures and the various aspects of the pictograph for qi which can be translated as ‘vapour ascending from boiling rice’. There are layers of subtle references: Yin and Yang were originally described as the sunny and shady sides of a hill. When you add ‘hill’ to the sign for qi it starts to resemble the one for yin (of yin and yang fame). After adding a horizontal to the up ended V, it looked more like an A and was moved and put above the electrical steamer which was cooking away and produced the bowls of rice which were eaten with obligatory chopsticks. 

Calligraphy
The Chinese pictograph for Qi with an almost A shape above 4 individual grains of rice and a waft of vapour

Grains of white rice are the key element in this show. They are drizzled and thrown, used to mimic water for washing your hair, and highly effective as sound effects. There is an initially interesting, but latterly, laborious part where small handfuls of rice are placed, one by one, on a long, cardboard tube, and one of my fellow audience members resorted to her mobile phone, but all of the rest of the show was mesmerising and mindful. The scenes slowly fade from one to another, then the pace varies and there is a fun section where a woman walks while others rush along beside her pouring rice around her feet. As she picks each one up to move forwards (from where I was sitting, the light shone magically between her toes), she leaves an inverse footstep, redolent of the ancient hand shapes found in the Lascaux Caves in France. It is a pleasing and enjoyable hour and the light, peaceful atmosphere stayed with me for a long while afterwards. 

Two performers put rice around another's feet in Edinburgh Fringe show
Using grains of rice to create the outline of her feet
Orange pigment with hand and fingers shapes
Ancient Lascaux Cave hand shapes

Qi is part of China Focus at The Old Dr Bells Baths in Leith. Last performance 16 August 12 noon. Free by donation.

Vu – Compagnie Sacékripa

Compagnie Sacékripa were part of the Manipulate festival (2 – 9 Feb 2019) at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh. 5 stars.

See also my review of Void, part of the same Manipulate Festival, when it first showed in Edinburgh during the Fringe 2018.

In Vu – translated as ‘viewed’ or ‘seen’ from the French – we spy on a grown man sitting on a tiny chair, knees squashed into his chest, playing. Ostensibly alone with household items and inhabiting a persona somewhere between adult and boy, he ruefully explores their usefulness. In a series of lightly connected actions and experiments – some mundane (making tea), some scientific (what happens if I…?), and others just plain silly (lots of stuff with marshmallows) – Etienne Manceau entertains us.

A one-man show from Compagnie Sacékripa, this 50 minute mime show is full of delight and laughs. Years of juggling and acrobatics on the streets with fellow performers has clearly honed Manceau’s acute sense of timing and meticulous measurement. He displays an acrobat’s precise judgment of distance (where do I position the spring board so that when I bounce off I land exactly on his shoulders? / where do I put the sugarlump so that when I ping it across the table it will land where I want it to?) and the brilliant bungling of the clown. The tricks are not always perfect but it seems clear that they could be if he wanted them to be. Indeed his deep sighs and wry facial expressions when something doesn’t work out are very much part of the humour.

Initially vaguely curious and then annoyed by the audience, he enters down stage right and leaves his coat on the only empty seat in Traverse 2. Wiping his feet on an imaginery mat (perhaps OCD, perhaps simply well trained) he steps across the line and becomes absorbed, somewhat resignedly, in his private antics – leaving us as mere onlookers.

Vu
He makes himself paper fingers and at one point chops off the ends with a very sharp knife – aargh!

Gradually, however, there’s a change of emphasis: the odd sly glance outwards or a hint of a gesture draws us into increasingly frustrated situations when, next thing we know, he has subtly beckoned someone onto the stage and has an accomplice, nay a dogsbody. It is charming, although he is not; he somehow cajoles and wheedles help with the merest hint of an expression or tap of a finger. Was the man a part of the show? Probably not, but he certainly added value and was endlessly patient despite being made to look foolish at times. Without a word until the final ‘merci’, Manceau insinuates, cocks an eyebrow, purses his lips and all but grimaces as he communicates his needs, playing on our willingness, yet always holding the power.

Sparsely crafted and spaciously presented by the performer with Sylvain Cousin’s ‘outside eye’, we come to love this character, always shambolic in his gait and posture. It’s not much more than a series of japes and yet has a powerful and lasting effect. Afterwards I found I was hyper aware of my own gestures as I hung my umbrella hook over the door knob. My life felt better – an effect only really good theatre can conjure.

If Vu is representative of the calibre of the Manipulate festival’s programme this year, I recommend you snap up any last available tickets.

 

In the title photo you see Manceau playing with fire as so many little children are drawn to do.

Vu is showing in March 2019 in France and Egypt. See their website for further venues