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Flash Review 2, 8-23: Fire and Dry Ice
Dance is a Circus at the Ed Fringe Festival

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2000 Rosa Mei

EDINBURGH, Scotland -- I love dense, convoluted Russian symbolist prose. I'm also a huge fan of loud, action-packed adventure flicks -- "Terminator," "Magnificent Butcher," et al. Not that I mix the pate with the Pringles, but sometimes it's just inevitable. Let's take, for example, this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Now over 50 years old, it's the world's largest and most-established cultural grab bag, featuring more than 1,400 shows ranging from bad basement acts to world-class touring companies. And production values ranging from $500 to $500,000. Bigger's not always better, but there does seem to be a rather disturbing trend here that favors style over substance, all the bells and whistles the mind could conjure, and all the dry ice you could possibly pump on stage without choking the audience.

The peculiar thing here is that this obsessive/compulsive tendency towards more is more, this love affair with eye candy, seems to be much more prevalent in the field of dance and physical theater than other disciplines. (The festival divides the shows into art form categories such as comedy, theatre, visual art, music, opera and dance and physical theater.) Common traits among theater pieces -- notably two Fringe First winners for innovative theater, "Achilles" by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Steven Berkoff's "Messiah" -- include intelligent writing, well-honed verse and clever plot twists. Visually sparse but intellectually riveting performances. In fact, "Achilles" featured no players per se, but only an actor reading a script for 90 minutes, "a narrative for performance." No gesticulation, no exaggerated facial expressions, just a vibrant display of vocal range and delivery. Fine/refined theater.

Now let's look at the dance & physical theater category. Over the past two weeks (the Edinburgh Fringe Festival runs from 6-28 August) I've seen nine or so performances in this arena, street acts and buskers not included. Almost all the acts contained one or more of the following traits:

-- dry ice
-- smoke
-- fireworks
-- aerial work or bungee jumping
-- shiny, happy people
-- rhythmic tap or percussion
-- juggling and tumbling

Let's back up here. I'm not describing side show acts from Carowinds. I'm talking about "art," dance art, physical theater art, art-for-arts-sake art. If all the world's a stage, is all the dance world becoming a circus? I mean, even here in NY, circuses have become the centerpiece of Lincoln Center's summer festivals. It ain't the circus, fool. It's nouveau cirque.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a curmudgeonly art snob, but if there's a time for Sammo (yay for Magnificent Butcher!), isn't there also a time for Goethe and Fellini? Is dance -- what many people seem to perceive as a more abstract art form than others -- so intangible that people need visual guideposts to interpret it or happy distractions (fireworks, dry ice, etc.) to maintain interest in it? On the other end of the dance spectrum, there seems to be a new choreographic trend towards creating obtuse, incomprehensible gibberish dance (see Glen Eddy's article in the August issue of Dance Europe on the Eurotrash fad in dance, "Brilliance or Baloney?"). Where, indeed, is middle ground?

That said, let's move on to some Edinburgh Fringe Festival reviews.

Turbozone: "Cinderella"

This piece wins the highest rating for bells and whistles. 10+. Turbozone founders Seth Fellner and Mojo Fell have created a high-octane spectacle extraordinaire to rival any MTV b-boy slam-a-thon. An electrifying outdoor show geared towards the clubbing generation, it's a cross between Mad Max and S&M goth fetish night in the Village. Two cranes hoist performers, post apocalyptic wrought iron vehicles, spaceships and six-meter puppets above the audience. Cinderella works in a genetic engineering lab that goes amuck and produces mutants, and Prince Charming is a fey, punk dapper clown complete with white face and red-dot cheeks. The love and dream sequences take place on suspended ropes as the lovers preen and cuddle one another. Add fireworks galore, a DJ blasting the house mix at full throttle, six motorcycles, Mad Max road vehicles and two concert-sized video projection screens to the mix and you have sensory overload. Turbozone is truly a triumph of style over substance to the nth degree. What's exhilarating is that this show is so glitzy and over the top, it's the next best thing to bungee jumping. Head-popping entertainment for the masses where every seat's a nosebleeder.

Camut Band: "Life is a Rhythm"

The rather small platform stage at Dynamic Earth could barely contain the sheer verve and energy of this touring Spanish dance troupe made up of five brilliant male performers (three dancers and two percussionists). Move over "Stomp" and make way for the Camut Band. These sexy, urban tappers know how to use every limb and facial expression to articulate a seductive pause or convey red-hot passion. The charismatic, sweaty men-in-black ooze sex from their pores and combine phenomenal technical skill with impeccable comic timing. The brainchild of Rafael and Luis Mendez and Toni Expanol, it's tap by way of Buster Keaton, and it works.

Bratslava Dance Theatre: "XY Files"

Billed as Slovakia's top modern dance company, Bratslava Dance Theatre works as a artistic collective and repertory touring troupe. The resident choreographers, Jan Kodet, Peter Mika and Olga Cobos all have strong ties with western European dance companies, most notably the now defunct S.O.A.P. Dance Theatre Frankfurt. Robert Mesko, the high-minded American producer of BDT, underwrites the company's expenses by forming a tight partnership with the commercial businesses in Slovakia. In fact, the back of the BDT brochure reads, "Associating your company with the BDT name also provides access to an audience in Slovakia which includes many prominent citizens, business leaders and policy makers." So, given that one of the prime goals of the BDT is to please its patrons and entertain clients, how's the art?

The festival show featured two works, Mika's heavy, angst-ridden "One Hit Wonder" and American choreographer Bill Young's playful, yet facile "To a T." "One Hit Wonder" (sounds like a Tharp piece from the '70s, but it is anything but light and whimsical) pits four dancers against each other. Conflict, resolution, dead man lying on the floor, taffy-like contact improv duets. The human struggle theme of the piece was represented by two small signs arrayed on either side of the stage, one reading "pull" and the other "push." Mika writes of his dance, "The home which I had in my memory has disappeared. There is only a wall, with those same doors. Something is always pushing us somewhere. But there is always a way out.... Pull." Fortunately, the piece itself seems less overwrought than the concept behind it. The dancers' committed performances and steely expressions turned a rather hackneyed theme into an intriguing dialogue The real standout, Radovan Vagac, a small human juggernaut, skimmed across the stage with mercurial grace and catlike aplomb. Young's "To a T," a trite duet about a couple in formal evening attire unwinding after a night on the town, uses every cliche in the book. Gooey and cloying, but the crowd still ate it up. I just kept thinking: bad freshman touring company material. Accessible, yes. Profound, no.

Skaksfin & Company: "BREAK!"

This particular show brought the Scottish folk out in droves to get a taste of New York grit. Featuring a cast of New York b-boys and b-girls, it was less Beastie Boys and more Disneyworld, complete with bad '80s glitter outfits that looked like they'd been salvaged from the basement of Domsey's warehouse. "BREAK!" is that "New York" show that's too fake and cheesy to ever make it in the real New York. Think of those gong acts on Showtime at the Apollo. To boot, the emcee orders the audience to applaud as loud as possible (before we ever see one breaker) to give the dancers more energy. "If you like something you see, clap loud!" Then, "If you don't like something you see, clap loud anyway!" Yeah, right. In the midst of all this cheese, however, were a few wildly talented performers, notably Ivan "Flipz" Velez, whose head spins have won mention in the Guiness Book of World Records, and DJ Slynke. Both off the hook. Both belong in a better show.

blackSKYwhite Company: "Bertrand's Toys"

This underground Moscow theatre company "danse-macabre" conjured up images of Hoffman by way of Nietzche, Freud and Jung. The first 10 minutes of this piece were actually so visually stunning, I had to force myself to close my mouth. The mime performers, Andrej Ivashnev and Marcella Soltan, first appear as a stuffy bureaucrat (the Russian apparatchik)and a puppet doll hanging from the ceiling with nooses around their necks. As the puppet ragdoll, Soltan is able to isolate ever part of her body, every micro-muscle creating the illusion that she's being controlled by an outside force. The two performers mutate into clowns, dolls and jack-in-the-boxes, all with perfect precision and finely etched detail. They wade through dry ice and stare blankly at a porthole in the back that seems to be a possible escape route from their subterranean hell, but they remain trapped and keep rewinding their movements. After the sumptuous beginning, I kept waiting for the main course, which never seemed to emerge. "Bertrand's Toys," which seemed so politically charged at the onset and fraught with psychoanalytical overtones, remained an intriguing sideshow act. Neat to watch, but hollow at the core.

For more info on the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, visit its web site.


Rosa Mei is a choreographer, dancer, and director of Rosa Mei Dance. A recipient of a Horace Rackham Fellowship, she earned her MFA in Dance from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She is a national competitor in Chinese martial arts (gold and silver medalist, 1994-9 Wushu/Kungfu Nationals) specializing in praying mantis kung fu, spear, broadsword and drunken straightsword; currently a member of the U.S. Wushu team, she is also a black belt in aikido. She formed Rosa Mei Dance in 1994; since then, the company has performed at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, the Cunningham Theater, Gowanus Arts Exchange, Mulberry Street Theater, Context Theater, the Joyce Soho, Lincoln Center and Central Park. Her dance video and film work has been shown at Bryant Park and NY cable stations. In the summer of 1998, Rosa Mei Dance made its first international tour, performing at the National Theater of Guatemala as part of the 50th Anniversary Celebration for Ballet Guatemala. Rosa is also creative director of Cinegrafx, a multimedia and motion graphics design firm.


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