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Flash Fringe Space Review, 8-24: Dance Base
They All Scream for Scotland's New National Dance Center

By Colleen Teresa Bartley
Copyright Colleen Teresa Bartley

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- The excitement is palpable here over Dance Base, Scotland's first national center for dance. From August 14 to 19, a triple bill of "In Situ," "Don't Play Me Games," and "Experiments in Unst" was presented, providing a sneak peek into the renovated warehouse at the edge of Grassmarket.

Designed by Malcolm Fraser and funded by The Scottish Arts Council Lottery, the 6 million lira venue is still in the process of being completed but was opened to the public for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dance Base happily relocated from its offices in the Assembly Rooms.

Leah Stein's "In Situ" took the audience on a journey through the building, surprising them at every turn. "Don't Play Me Games" delighted the audience with humorous stylized antics, and "Experiments" impressed with its raw energy. As an event, "In Situ" provided a framework for the other works to rest in and prepared the audience to look at dance with new eyes.

In her introduction, Dance Base director Morag Deyes described "In Situ" as "a dance inspired by the space, which in turn was inspired by dance." She is right.

The new center is spacious and open and just aches to be filled with movement. Light pours in everywhere. There are windows cut into walls, windows set into walls, and windows bordering the entire area near the ceiling in Studio 4. Studio 1 has a glass ceiling. Instead of a fourth wall, Studio 3 has two massive sliding glass doors that open out into a balcony. Studio 4 has a skylight at the center of the room. The landings at the top of the stairs on both levels are made of frosted glass. Everything is wide and open.

The materials -- polished wood, glass, and metal and rock -- add to the atmosphere, reflecting the light and providing smooth surfaces. The clean design is enriched by functionality and texture of the building materials.

Hailing from Philadelphia, Stein is know for her site-specific performances, having made work in outdoor venues such as Wave Hill in NYC, Bartram's Gardens in Philadelphia, and Longwood Gardens. She and musician Toshi Makihara have worked together for years on the collaborative site work.

Her expertise lies in engaging the performers in an exploration of the space which in turn engages the audience to watch with great attention. The audience travels with the piece and becomes part of the movement, with the border between audience and performers sometimes blurring.

Stein focuses and frames the space using a guide who leads the audience to stand in specific places. She also has one or more performers who provide a thread of movement in the piece and a cast of others who appear and disappear in the background/foreground. This allows the viewer freedom to follow the piece while looking at what catches the eye.

"In Situ" was indeed structured by the space. The audience started in the foyer downstairs and was led up the stairs to the first level, through the entrance door to the foyer, into Studio 1, down the wheelchair accessible corridor, to the landing at the foot of the stairs leading to the second level, up the stairs to the landing, into Studio 3, through a narrow storage space into Studio 4 and into the outdoor courtyard. Along the way, the spectators were treated to an exploration of sound and space. Dancers explored all the textures and surfaces, crawling, walking, balancing, tumbling, catching and falling. In a way, the building became another partner in the dance. The dancers stood on furniture, crawled out of closets, jumped on the roof, wiggled into corners, propelled themselves off of walls, slipped behind the ballet barre, rolled down the wheelchair ramp,and perched on ledges and steps. Nothing was left unexplored. Even the elevator was used as dancers made a surprise entrance and then exit.

The music was also inspired by exploration of the space as Toshi played the walls, the metal sculptures, shook the tree and at times remained unseen in another part of the building while playing a drum or gong that echoed through the building. Joanna Nicholson's deep clarinet shook life into the dance, its reedy strains winding through the air and punctuating the atmosphere like the dancers. Dancers slapped the concrete walls, tapped on the glass wall, and created squeaky accompaniment using their feet on the polished floor in Studio four. Silence was a key player in the soundscore. A duet on the balcony outside of Studio three was performed to the accompanying sounds of the surrounding city and the impact of the dancers' bodies on the floor and against each other. Even the audience's shuffling from space to space and their shifting to get settled were part of the piece.

The movement was simple punctuated, layered and fluid with sudden bursts of running and leaping and other moments of slow contemplative movement. The music and dance were integrated and reflected each other. For example, at one point during the performance a dancer reached her arm out, pushed it forward, and retracted it.The movement reflected the resonant sound heard when another person slapped the surface of a hollow metal sculpture. The way in which the space and dance were framed and the choreography called attention to detail and transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary. Sometimes dancers would hold a still pose in a position to call attention to that space or area. When walking up the wheelchair ramp, they were tucked into the spaces of the stone walk, hanging from the banister like statues. It made people stop and look, if only for a second. At other times, dancers were lay flat on the ground or standing in a windowsill. They also did functional things with innovation, such as closing the door with the top of the head or using the whole body to open a sliding glass door.

Leah Stein's solo in Studio 3 summarized the energy of the piece. Set against the background of doors which opened into the outdoor courtyard, Stein dipped and dove, weaving in and out around the other dancers in the room. The energy was powerful and relaxed and completely fluid, changing from continuous flow to sudden jumps. It reminded me of tigers in the way they are relaxed but ready to pounce at any moment. Her fluidity was juxtaposed by the linear aspects of the room -- door frames, walls, floor. She was framed by other dancers in the foreground and background. The piece concluded with the audience outside the building in the courtyard watching a dancer disappear around the corner. As her fingers disappeared, she seemed to return to the magical world inside.

"In Situ" is like moving Feng Shui. The dancers seemed to be a natural extension of the building. They were part of the fabric of the place and appeared and disappeared like magical fairies or elves that come out when no one is looking. In my imagination, "In Situ" christened the building and paid tribute to the stunning architecture and the art form of dance.

It is hard to believe that "In Situ" was created in only two weeks. The cast included Ruth Connell, Felicity Drever, Tara Hodgson, Melissa Keri, Audicia Lynne Morely , Rachel Morrow, Jennifer Paterson, Anne Reungoat, Sara Ritchie, Amy Tomson and Paul Brunton. "Don't Play Me Play Games" by Berlin-based choreographer Rosie Kay was a playful dance about conformity and growing up and adult games. Agnes Breitfus, Karol Cyseki, and Rosie Kay used a lime green couch as a home base to explore the different aspects of game playing. They stripped off their woolly dark clothes to reveal colorful funky garb.

"Experiments in Unst" closed the program with unbridled energy. Eva Puschendorf and Johnny Schoofs from the Rotterdam Dance Academy improvised with some of the participants who took part of the workshops offered during the week as part of Dance Base's taster sessions. The audience was seated around them. They began outstretched in a Yoga relaxation position, listening to a relaxation tap,e but quickly picked up the pace. They played with throwing their weight around, rolling and jumping. It was an infusion of a different kind of energy compared to the other pieces and left us gasping for breath.

At the conclusion of the performance, no one in the audience moved until the director asked, "What are you waiting for, some to give you ice cream?" To which someone replied, "NO, WE WANT MORE."

I watched as people trickled out of the building, walking slower and more attentive than when they arrived. I watched people pause at points to explore or reflect ideas from "In Situ." They peeked through windows, touched the walls, played with the sculpture, look longingly down a passageway and even looked around corners and under surfaces.

The event seemed to have touched people and changed their perspective on dance, space and movement. It was, I think, the combination of stunning architecture, the inspirational "In Situ" and the dynamic varied choreography of "Don't Play" and "Experiments." Each piece was fun, humorous, engaging and inviting.

Funding for the In Situ project came from a new initiative, PA/UK, organized with Dance Base, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Guilded Balloon, Melanie Stewart Dance Theater and Dance Advance. The initiative also brought choreographer Paule Turner to the festival this year.

For more info on Dance Base, please visit its web site.

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