My Light Shines On: An Evening with Scottish Ballet

Edinburgh International Festival online
August 8, 2020

David Mead

There may be no live Edinburgh International Festival this year but to keep the flame burning it is presenting My Light Shines On, for which it commissioned some of Scotland’s top companies to create programmes on line. An Evening with Scottish Ballet presents six works including a new ensemble piece from Nicholas Shoesmith. It’s a programme varied in mood, style and location that highlights the versatility of the company, even if, with under 27 minutes of dance in total, that title is stretching things rather.

Helen Pickett’s duet, Trace, dates from the 2013 Edinburgh Festival and is danced by Claire Souet and Rimbaud Patron. Starting with the couple at a distance within a square defined by floor-based strip-lighting, the couple soon come together in a touching yet at times restless dance. The choreography is absolutely at one with Rachmaninov’s piano Prelude in D major, Souet withdrawing to observe a more edgy solo before they couple reunite for a tender closing.

Aaron Venegas and Jerome Anthony Barnes in Frontiers Photo Mihaela Bodlovic
Aaron Venegas and Jerome Anthony Barnes in Frontiers
Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

Also from 2013 is resident choreographer Sophie Laplane’s Oxymore. Set in a backstage store and danced by Anna Williams and Rishan Benjamin who are dwarfed by high-stacked tour boxes. The quirky, twitching choreography has the same incessant rhythm as Susumu Yokota’s score. While there is a lot of repetition, the dance remains absorbing, although the shifting camera that provides ever-changing viewing angles helps a lot.

Laplane’s second piece, Idle Eyes, fares less well. Created as part of the company Digital Season’s Work in a Week in 2019, it’s another dance of jolting movement. There is some interest as brief solos and duets emerge from the ensemble, but the electronic score and flickering film (an effect as much loved by editors as the intensely trying strobe lighting is by lighting designers) quickly becomes bothersome.

The programme opens with Prometheus & Epimetheus by Alexander Whitley in collaboration with Digital Artist in Residence Zachary Eastwood-Bloom, although any connection with the two Greeks is lost on me. The film constantly intersplices two same sex duets, Barnaby Rook Bishop and Thomas Edwards, and Grace Horler and Grace Paulley, as they dance the same choreography that’s full of reaching and lunging. While the choreography is as classy and sleek as one has come to expect from Whitely, the dance lacks a little for excitement.

Frontiers, by San Francisco Ballet’s Myles Thatcher, was filmed in 2019 in the concrete wasteland that is Glasgow’s Kingston Bridge underpass, complete with motorway traffic speeding by. Same-gender duets are hardly unknown in contemporary classical ballet. That Thatcher considers the ballet duet still needs to be undone and that he needs to make a point of gender-neutral coupling probably hints at the still very conservative nature of much American dance. Whatever, he shows us similar choreography danced by six dancers in various pairings, women lifting as well as being lifted and so on. Unfortunately, what is going on is all too often reduced to a blur by the over-enthusiastic editing that sees fast cut after fast cut.

Scottish Ballet in Catalyst by Nicholas ShoesmithPhoto Mihaela Bodlovic
Scottish Ballet in Catalyst by Nicholas Shoesmith
Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

It looks increasingly like the UK will be around twelve months behind the rest of Europe at getting back into large venues (live performances with albeit smaller audiences have already started and are scheduled widely this autumn) but at least Shoesmith’s new Catalyst gets us back on a main stage, even if it is in the ghostly otherwise emptiness of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre.

It opens with a single male dancer in a black face mask walking in blackness. He’s attracted to a single lightbulb. It’s hard to not see it as reflecting how many in the arts feel right now, that light being symbolic of hope that we will emerge from this long tunnel.

Catalyst grows into a whole company piece. The cast may be dressed down in white vests and black leggings, and may all wear similar face masks, but one does sense an underlying mood of optimism. The accompanying and arresting ‘The Secrets of the Sky’ by composer Ben Chatwin helps with that too.

There’s a strength and power in the large-scale unison, balanced by the camera occasionally picking out individuals. Yearning arms suggest wings desperately wanting to take flight but that right now cannot. Although the dancers remain isolated from each other with no physical contact there is an energy that courses through the piece, which I could quite easily see being extended.

The single light may go out at the end of Catalyst, but An Evening with Scottish Ballet is a show of hope for the future.

My Light Shines On: An Evening with Scottish Ballet can be watched on the Edinburgh International Festival YouTube channel until August 31.