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. 

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.

Autóctonos II, dance

At Zoo, Southside. Edinburgh Fringe, 22 and 24-27 Aug 218 1800 hrs

A grouping of shifting, swivelling dancers. Sharp quarter turns, heels slightly lifted, neck torso arms and face rigid and unchanging. Automaton meets shop dummies in Autóctonos II, and save the odd cryptic word from one of them every now and then (it is assumed the dancers can influence the order and formation by randomly giving a verbal sign) and the faintly varied, prepared piano, so it continues. For 10 minutes, 20 and counting, Ayelin Parolin’s choreography and Lea Petra’s composition and playing goes on.

For sure, this repetitive, unchanging movement is extensive within the contemporary dance community at all levels of experience just now, if the Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival are anything to go by, and if it represents their reality then it doesn’t say much for the lives they are leading or seeing around them.

Bleak, uninteresting, monotonous. If it is meant to be this way – it succeeds. It may be representative of reality, but is it the stuff of effective performance? It is as if they would have done this without the audience. There are, as the programme puts it, “hairline fractures” of change: eventually a range of arm movements (physical ticks, a cut, a thrust, a punch) which are then used for the whole of the second half; slight changes of direction; occasional separation of one from the crowd; a hint of variety of plane; a sort of searching or looking. There is a complete absence of beauty.

autoctonos ii

If this is the truth, no wonder no-one marches or opposes any abusive government or partner! An enquiry into this topic is laudable, but it is truly mind-numbing and pedestrian to view. For some reason even the score, played so attentively, is the same; probably because it is monotone and uses an intensely small range of notes.

The lives of workers and those with no resources, of the down-trodden or of political prisoners when shown on the TV or written about, suggest that human beings find a smile or a notion of love even amongst the terror or fear. There is nothing of that here.

The performances are focused, the actions precise, but there is zero for an audience to hook onto, and although this may be representative of their view, it only serves to alienate and estrange the watcher, avoiding any sort of outcome. Is it enough to show a state of mind but evade explanation or comment?

Atomic 3001

At Dance Base, Grassmarket, Edinburgh. Tickets and information. 22 – 26 Aug 2018 16.45hrs

Atomic 3001 is a product of the triumvirate which is Leslie Mannés (choreography, performance), Sitoid (original live music) and Vincent Lemaître (light design), all based in Brussels. It was created in 2016 and has been touring Europe since then. Having worked with Ayelin Parolin, who is herself performing here at the Fringe, and no doubt having watched the more renowned L-E-V and Wayne McGregor, it is not surprising that she is in the same minmalist, deconstructed dance camp.

Mannes explains exactly what her work is about in the programme. It is a “futuristic ritual in which she is subjected to a perpetual, unyielding pulse…(a) primitive drive for survival.”  It is interesting that she places herself in the third person because during the first 10 minutes of so of the piece the lighting means that she has no face, and, later on, her hair is often hiding it. In terms of being separated from herself, that is part of the aim, to be brought to “exhaustion, trance and incandescence.” The alienation this implies is also cited in the blurb.

She is, we are told, manipulated by the music, which is insistent, electronic and loud. Also that she is burned by the red lights. The scarlet jumper and jeans, the extreme headbanging didn’t help keep her cool either. She will have attained incandescence after a short while, if by that she means the heat emanating from her! Not only is her face hidden, but for a long time she has no abdomen – no centre, and no feet – no contact with the ground.

Atomic 3001

Ritual dance and raves are, commonly, group experiences; the close juxtaposition of other bodies and shared fervour, both in tribal dance and techno, are what causes the frenzy. This, however, is in front of an audience who sit, stony faced and unmoving, while watching the dancer reach for and recreate some sort of out-of-body state on her own. It is like sitting in front of someone being tortured, worse, torturing herself. The self-harm of hitting, thrusting and shaking her head like that, the wear and tear on those joints from so many repetitions, is shocking.

Having said that, she appears strong, a veritable scarlet Amazon. Like a whirling dervish without the spiritual context, like a shaman without the divination or healing; and more like the contemporary sweat lodge visitor who is there for a personal de-tox, it is otherwise unclear why Mannés is putting herself through this except that she obviously likes doing it – she beams at the end. Applause was necessary to recognise her commitment.



Warmed Air – site-specific performance

Warmed Air 10 Aug 3pm Anatomical Museum, Teviot Place

Warmed Air is a site-specific combination of dance and the arts which takes place in the Anatomical Museum in Edinburgh. The title refers to exhaled breath, warmer after the exchange of gases inside the lungs. It is an original idea and realised collaboratively and inclusively: Ruth Pollitt, who “likes old things” is the museum’s curator and plays the shawm (a sort of medieval oboe) in the show. Simon Anderson initiated the project with his interest in Antonin Artaud, somatic movement and psychophysical performance.

We are led into the Lecture Theatre where the sound of deep breathing fills the space as we sit up high looking down onto the podium. Here a specialist delivers a lecture about Indian sun gods, Maes Howe , e=mc2 and the science of the fixed firmament which unfortunately we cannot hear in its entirety. The dancers, dressed in yellow and red, pose arabesques, crawl and scramble over seats, dangerously perch, and pivot, cranium on wood.

The second section involves a tour into the museum itself, briefly hovering in front of Paul Michael Henry, situated between dinosaur skeletons, a living specimen behind a sheet of glass. This performer has a mannered intensity.

anatomical musem 3

Thirdly, we move to a room full of display cases: bones, skulls (including a cast of Rabbie Burns exhumed for burial by his wife), and a body preserved in 1788 with flesh and sex organs. Here the four dancers alternate in presenting their solos, presumably their own personal responses to the general themes: writer and artist Laura Gonzalez with her neat feet – I liked her phrase ‘your soft architecture’); part-time lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire, Laura Bradshaw’s bone movement, sensual hand wringing and found words); and a misguided rewrite of The Cruel Mother.

There is so much material here, fascinating ideas seeking connections between disciplines. Like some conceptual art, it is intriguing on the page, but so far the ideas are more interesting than the exposition; the physical and verbal improvisation is too ambitious for the performers’ skills. There is great possibility however it is in need of tight direction, an outside eye which can contain the myriad influences and focus it. On a basic level someone is needed to stand in the audience and see if they can hear or see; on an artistic level to draw the strands together, eliminating the personal favourites if they don’t work for the good of the piece, thereby creating a coherent whole.

Overall this show uses a very wide range of fascinating ideas and seeks connections between disciplines, painting and dance for example. There is great possibility here but it is in need of tight direction, an outside eye which can contain the myriad influences and focus it. On a basic level someone is needed to stand in the audience and see if they can hear or see; on an artistic level to draw the strands together, eliminating the personal favourites if they don’t work for the good of the piece thereby creating a coherent whole.




L-E-V Dance Company- Love Cycle

L-E-V Dance Company, Love Cycle: OCD Love and Love Chapter 2. 9-11 Aug 2018 20.00 hrs.

These two 55-minute shows performed on consecutive nights by the Israeli L-E-V Dance Company are pure contemporary dance, as pure as it gets: five dancers, minimal lighting, an almost constantly berating soundtrack from the tick – tick of the opening to the relentless techno rhythms of the rest; and bare movement. In OCD, the performers enter one by one unobtrusively from corners or between curtains, limbs picked out of the shadows by dull light, and begin their desperate, compulsive movements. In Chapter 2, all five are onstage continuously and the dance language is almost identical with the score and repetition building to an infernal pace with no end in sight.

OCD Love is more OCD than love and you won’t necessarily get either unless you read about it first. Once you do know, it definitely is obsessive. Sharon Eyal’s choreography is highly original. Her deeply personal identification with Neil Hilborn’s poem, OCD, has resulted in an intense, strung-out and internal set of motifs which are, of course, repeated. In the same way that this ultimately destructive behaviour is an external sign of something desperate happening inside, so it is well nigh impossible to empathise. One watches with a sort of horror, but does not kinaesthetically participate in it. The audience’s initial confusion and lack of understanding may well be a reflection of the sufferers themselves being unconsciously controlled and driven.


The choreographic impetus for both pieces is at the centre (as you would expect from Eyal’s formative association with Martha Graham) and the torso is racked with convulsions, shudders and twitches. The endless arms and legs octopus-wave sequentially from there, then nudge with jagged elbows, sink deep with knees angular, or keep the impossibly persistent beat of soft steps. Each body is taut with tension, especially the shoulders, and the backbends are excruciating, with hands that reach so far behind, you wonder that they belong at all.

Fingers grasp and pull back the head of another, mimetic palms claw own breast and abdomen, hips jut suggestively in frequently bird-like trajectories around the stage. Very occasionally there is a breathless hiaitus, and once there is a terrible crash on drums and with fist and the audience shocks. Perhaps there is a slight tenderness between two, more likely there are empty arms where a partner should be – these beings are locked into themselves.

The performances are 100% solid, impossible to fault, which is almost unheard of. Without doubt they are drilled and dedicated. The long-standing collaboration between Eyal and composer Ori Lichtik’s grand score is perfect, and the watchers’ final cheers were surely a response to the sheer quality of the work.

WRoNGHEADED – contemporary dance review

Contemporary Dance Show Review: WRoNGHEADED by Liz Roche Company.

Aug 5, 7-12, 14-19 Dance Base, Edinburgh Fringe 2018.

WRoNGHEADED opens with beautiful images: Mary Wycherley’s film of natural landscape – iceberg, water – glides into our vision before we see any dancers (it has featured in dance film festivals around the world and won an award in Kerry in 2017). Set to Elaine Feeney’s fierce poetry, the environment is swirly and sleepy in atmosphere. An elegiac lace-clad wood nymph drifts, contrasting with the glistening, jaggedy rockface; it’s a near-monochrome palette.

A single dancer slides on from a downstage corner, back arching, arm curving over, quiet as if on snow, not disturbing, not attracting attention. Electronic music now. We recognise the woman from the film become concrete, in the breath and shadow. There is an air of seriousness.

Liz Roche Company are currently in residence at the Dublin Festival and Roche herself is an experienced choreographer. Created in 2016, it sought to “highlight the frustration that many women feel in relation to the choices that have been available to them around their bodies in Ireland”, so it is indeed serious. Happily, some monumental changes have taken place since then, but there is still a way to go obviously.

For a time, the two women share the space but do not touch. With shoulders hunched, they slip and slide in slow motion, they roll, explore, suspend. One reaches with her chest. A breast is almost touched. Later hands are thrust between thighs; fingers are splayed; sudden sinewy ripples rack the torso and there’s an abrupt change of direction. Then it starts to change: angled arms, a knee crossed over a taut leg and they join. In a Contact Improvisation-based duet, any spaces between the dancers is highly charged. They react off each other, brush against, spring away from, only to return to the crook of a knee or armpit. After a struggle one lands on top of the other, a dead weight, and it takes some wriggling for the other to extricate herself.

The poem is complex, and only snippets come through when the focus is on the action: “Sorry, sorry”, “I’m in debt to you for giving me air to live”, “Nonononono”. Attention is necessarily split between the movement language and the words. The choreographer has mined the poem for ideas, so is it necessary to use it in its entirety? Its quality and that of the steps are imbalanced: one thought provoking and direct; the other sensual and atmospheric, dreamlike. Ultimately this is the type of contemporary dance which is dense and speaks to the initiated. It is not easily accessible, but aficionados will be impressed.