Various Venues, Edinburgh
Edinburgh Fringe dance productions come in all shapes and sizes. Well-known professional choreographers and companies sit alongside emerging artists. Given the huge choice of shows to see, when casting your eye down the listings it’s easy to put youth and children’s productions to one side. But these too often have much to offer and throw up some very pleasant surprises.
Among the youth productions that caught the eye this year was A Letter to Alice by Wirksworth INdependDANCE at Greenside@Nicholson Square.
Led by Debi Hedderwick and comprising dancers aged 12 to 18, the Derbyshire ensemble is one of the few youth dance companies in the UK making full-length dance-theatre work. While some of the performers might look to study dance at college, INdependDANCE is very much a community company. It’s totally inclusive. All are welcome. No-one auditions. The aim, quite simply, is to develop the young people’s dance, performance, creativity and choreography skills within a fun and supportive environment. As A Letter to Alice shows, that work can not only take up challenging themes, but present them very effectively indeed.
The story of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole in Wonderland are well-known but have you ever stopped to think the effect her literally out-of-world experiences are likely to have had on her? That’s where Letter to Alice, choreographed by artistic director Debi Hedderwick and the dancers comes in, taking up themes of anxiety and depression, identity and belonging.
It opens with the cast already on stage, chatting and playing games. With them in their various greys, Olive Turner as Alice is immediately marked out in her blue dress. She’s obviously different. Withdrawn, the sense is very much of someone confused, mixed-up, lost, not knowing who she is.
As the work progresses, Alice’s thoughts are brought to vivid life. Memories and especially demons emerge. People appear from the set. She is surrounded by masked people, faces but simultaneously faceless. Being unable to escape the chaos of her mind is neatly visualised using elastics. Most notably, there’s some super puppetry. The jabberwocky is decidedly scary.
Alice’s battle to come to terms with what happened to her is helped along by her younger and older self. Despite the darkness, the message is that there is always hope, always a way through. Early on, her older self assures here that she can cope. At the end, the same voice tells her, “Sometimes the clouds descend for no reason…There will be better days and worse days as we move across the chessboard of life. We can and will overcome our demons.” A message for everyone if ever there was one.
Committed displays were everywhere. For energy, the tea party took the honours, helped along with some upbeat jive music. Individually, the mature Turner as Alice carried the piece. I was also particularly impressed by Jocelyn Johnson as the March Hare. Her dance was not only fully of fizz, but also so sure and precise. It was quite a performance for one so young. Esther Abrahams and Erin Rowlatt as Tweedledum and Tweedledee delighted too, bringing just the right humour to the stage.
A special mention too for the artwork of local artist Martin Hyde, which Alice revealed at the end of the piece.
Down the road at C South, another youth performance was playing to excellent houses: Snow White by Burklyn Ballet Theatre.
Fringe regulars from Vermont, this year the group were to be found in the children’s programme rather than dance one. That probably accounted for the large number of pre-school youngsters in the audience.
I do wish director Joanne Whitehill did not always consider it necessary to explain that, in ballet, story is told without words and then demonstrate what some of the mime meant. It always feels patronising, and even allowing for the fact there were probably ballet newbies in the audience, it is unnecessary.
But put that one side because, if the rapt attention of the children watching is any measure, Burklyn Ballet’s Snow White is a success. Despite the odd narrative gap, the story is told clearly and certainly provided a pleasant fifty minutes or so. I’m not convinced choosing music from other well-known ballets was a wise move, though. There were a few errors in the dancing itself which wasn’t always a tight as one might hope, but no-one got fazed and the choreography generally showed the young performers at their best.
The colourful seven dwarves were particularly well portrayed. Characters were well developed and there was absolutely no doubt who each one was. Abigail Diedrich made for a pleasing Snow White. Oliver Greene-Cramer was solid if a little expressionless as the Prince. I did rather like the way Doc needed to tell him (more than once) what he should do to wake Snow White up. Why are ballet princes generally pretty dumb?
As an introduction to ballet, it all worked rather well. Allowing the audience to come on stage, talk to and have photos taken with the dancers was a nice closing gesture.
Elsewhere there were a couple of noteworthy pieces by performing groups from China.
Seen at theSpace on the Mile, The Moment (瞬間) by Here Dance, a Beijing dance school delivering pre-professional training for students ages 4 to 18, takes inspiration from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye; and particularly from its title, a reference to ‘Comin’ Thro the Rye’, a Robert Burns poem and a symbol for the longing to preserve childhood innocence as we move through life.
That innocence is emphasised by the dance and by the simple white dresses of the largely female cast. The make paper aeroplanes of many colours. They hold them up and fly them. To where? What do they imagine? Like when children play for real, the dancers appeared very much in their own world; very much in ‘the moment’ of the title. Through their dance, they invited us into their world and perhaps even to revisit our own childhood.
Lan Ming-ming’s (兰明明) ensemble choreography made the best of the small space. The changing patterns are effective and pleasing, the relationship to the music always close. Skipping, clapping and ‘pat-a-cake’ games recall a lost age; and innocence I’m not sure today’s children have. Moments of calmness gave the dance a chance to breathe.
The works goes beyond the novel, but if you are looking for a reference from it, maybe it’s Holden picturing “all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around.”
All the time there was a remarkable clarity and assuredness from all the performers, the soloists in particular. The group work was interrupted by a beautiful duet, full of feeling. A subsequent flowing solo for one of the girls featured lots of reaching out towards one of those many paper aeroplanes. A solo for a boy (Wen Bohan, 文柏翰) is stronger. The choreography is tense and bound. It may be over-analysing, but he could be seen as the Holden of Salinger’s story.
It was a very engaging 35 minutes.
The children’s programme also included the very engaging Xchange (變形計) by Dramatic English Shenzhen Theatre Company (劇英語), a sort of East meets West children’s musical, a cross between the Chinese story Racoon for Prince and the well-known Prince and the Pauper. Click here for the review.