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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'
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
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