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Flash Fringe Journal 2, 8-21: Ugly is as Ugly Does
In Edinburgh, Miller Gets Good 'n' 'Ugly,' and Cirque Surreal Dreams High

By Colleen Teresa Bartley
Copyright 2001 Colleen Teresa Bartley

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- What do circus and ballet have in common? Nothing, you say? Here in the U.K., one is funded by the state, the other completely commercial. How about, then, virtuosity, defying limits of physicality, awe inspiring performances, and casts from around the world? Until Sunday, I thought of ballet and cirque in completely different worlds. You'll see why I've changed my mind.

At 2:30 I was in the immaculate Edinburgh Festival Theatre for a performance of "The Art of Fugue" by Ballett Frieburg Pretty Ugly, presented as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. At 6 I was under the big top in a muddy field for "Voyagers," from Cirque Surreal as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Although completely separate events, I have chosen to write about them together to compare and contrast.

Both companies claim to work with classical forms: Ballet and Circus.

A brief description of each company demonstrates their common goal to push the classical form forward.

Ballet Freiburg Pretty Ugly is led by artistic director Amanda Miller. It was founded in 1993 by a cooperative group of dancers, musicians, technicians and costume designers. It now has a relationship with the Stattheater Freiburg which includes its own budget and use of theatre production facilities. It also has an artists-in-residence programme and cooperates with partners Hubbel Theater in Berlin, Kaditheatre in Brussels , Ballett Frankfurt and Goethe Institute.

Miller, an American, helped build Ballett Frankfurt with William Forsythe and was approached by Freiburg's Stadttheatre to collaborate. She named the company Ballett Freiburg for them and Pretty Ugly after her own company, which she had previously directed in New York. Pretty Ugly refers to that we each have our own perception, and what is beautiful to one, may be ugly to another.

Cirque Surreal was created by Phillip Gandey in 1995 with the goal of redefining the world of circus by breaking the accepted rules and traditions.

Gandey assembled artists from 11 countries for the "Voyagers," whose title alludes to a journey between the surrealist movement of the 1920s and a circus which draws on the unconscious.

"The Art of Fugue" was choreographed by Amanda Miller and performed to Bach, played by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. The polyphonic music was pivotal to the creation and meaning of the piece. Says Miller in the program notes: "The dance possibilities are in the contrapuntal tensions between the different voices of the fugue." This becomes evident on all levels: the floor patterns, the grouping structure, and even individual body movements.

"The Art of Fugue" as a piece of music emphasizes the main points of polyphonic composition and is a collection of different fugues.

The musicians performed live on stage with the dancers.

Space was an important aspect of the piece. The traditional black box was toyed with. The set consisted of a large diagonally placed rectangle of dance floor on the full depth of the stage. Part of the audience sat on the stage on a set of risers upstage. Two wooden benches were set to the left of the dance floor for the performers to sit upon. They were set at strange angles as were the walls that framed the performance space. This set-up challenged performance norms and broke down boundaries between performers and audience. Audience members became part of the piece; dancers became viewers. Sight-lines were different and the black box of the stage was transformed into a deep, opened, layered space.

Assymetry was evident in the set and within the structure and movement of the work.

The manner in which Miller grouped the dancers in solos, duets, trios, quartets and overlapping groups, along with the spatial patterns and rhythm of the movement did not simply reflect the fugue in a direct way of a dancer doing steps in time with music . The dance had its own pulsating breathing complexity which illuminated the mathematical structural strains of Bach. It did not "illustrate the fugue" but rather allowed the dancers to "go through it."

The dance had a playful light feel to it with the performers dressed casually and taking the stage in turns, walking on and off as if on the street, while others sat reclined on the bench, watching.

Miller employed classical tenets of ballet with the illusion of effortlessness, lifted movement and absolute fluidity. She tweaked this style by having performers tilt sideways and break from pure classical port de bras, and by adding complexity within the individual dancers' bodies.

As she explained in the program notes, the idea was to choreograph "a two-part canon for a solo dancer by representing the structure of the canon through the body movements. The dancer begins on the right-hand side and then continues the canon on the left side of the body. She dances both parts of the canon , just with the body."

Patterns of solos, duets, trios, quartets and the layering of these and experiments with proximity and distance visualized the complexity of the fugue.

"Voyagers" was directed by Phillip Gandy and choreographed by Tom Roden and Jackie Sysum, and featured a series of acts from around the world. Gandy played with the form of traditional circus by introducing a storyline and theme.

The piece reveals its theme of globalisation and loss of individuality and innovation (in the circus and in the world) by exploring the social pressure of each continent as represented by characters including Miss Liu from China, a Zulu dancer from Africa, an Argentinean bolas dancer from South America and a Kossak dancer from Russia.

The show began with a boy looking for his way home. He meets a man representing the moon and then the stage explodes in excitement as the rest of the cast makes their entrance.

Each of the four main symbolic characters stands at the point of a life-sized compass on the floor and then uses the pole as bar for others to hand off of and flip through.

The show progresses, featuring each artist in turn and always returning to the theme of homelessness, being lost and, eventually, unity and finding home.

The costumes were stunning , each individually elaborate, intricate and functional, eye-catching and beautiful.

A highlight was an airal act which had a woman and man hanging from straps and completely held up by the strength in their arms.

The Collins Brothers performed a hilarious static trapeze duet in a clumsy fashion. One tried to help the other one and wound up hanging off of him. The two scrambled, fumbled, gripped and fell, executing complicated work. Normal circus acts would make this routine smooth and steady but they pushed further. Jamile Martinez juggled soccer balls, catching them behind the neck and on his feet, spinning them, balancing them onon his knee and simultaneously spinning one on a fingerwhile bouncing another on his head. His tricks were astounding.

Walter Galarza, and Argentinean master of bolas, pounded out Flamenco-style rhythms with his feet and with his props, long silver stings with metal balls attached at the end. The thundered when they struck the ground, and Galarza increased the intensity and speed so much that the ropes became a blur of silver.

A powerhouse troupe of five men performed tremendous, impossible feats on the parallel bars. The appeared to fly from one to the other, the velocity building up and releasing as they turned round and round and dove to the mats below.

Other acts featured a Zulu stomp dance and an acrobalancing love duet.

The finale brought the group together and saw the boy find home.

While Ballet Freiburg Pretty Ugly and Circus Surreal sit at opposite ends of the sociopolitical landscape, they are more commonly linked than one would think. Both offered superhuman displays of technique, and both companies are interested in pushing boundaries. Both are entertaining and both express emotion.

Both performances had an impact. Both share the power of live performance, the impact of the human body and the vision of a strong director. The ballet was serenely complicated and relaxing and the circus was invigorating and simply astounding.

Ballet Freiburg Pretty Ugly has concluded its festival run. Cirque Surreal performs at the Meadows Theatre Big Top Through Sunday. For ticket information, please call 44 (0) 131 667 0202. For more information on Cirque Surreal, please visit its web site.

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