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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera had a whale of a time being willingly abducted in Edinburgh
What was I doing charging around nocturnal Edinburgh in mid-August in the popcorn-littered back seat of a car? Having a whale of a time, as it turned out, after being willingly abducted by a squabbling, neo-Thelma and Louise duo operating under the influence of Pinocchio and in hot pursuit of a literal (but entirely elusive) whale themselves.

Does any of this make sense? I didn't think so. It gets worse - or better, depending on your viewpoint. A week before this crazy, live road movie I'd spent an extraordinarily intimate half-hour blindfolded, wrists tied and in a wheelchair, all thanks to some exceptionally clever Belgians. And then there were the six wild-haired, kohl-eyed and powdery-skinned Aussie women in identical pink dresses that I was invited to touch as part of a performance installation.

Ah, of course. Now it all adds up. Edinburgh in August plus performances like these can only equal the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At this international gathering artists of all stripes seek not so much fame or fortune, but appreciative audiences.

The theatrical experiences mentioned above were all interactive. The Fringe is conducive to that kind of alternative work. Although in dance terms the festival tends to be less envelope-pushing, it still offers an incredible range of global movement styles and hybrids: contemporary dance, dance-theatre, hip hop dance-theatre, ballet and hip hop, hip hop and flamenco, flamenco and tap, belly dancing, classical Indian, and contemporary. And so it comes full circle. The roster of genres is like a map or illustration of the common wealth of dance, this issue's focus.

As I write this, I've taken in 47 shows in twelve and half days. Madness. But it's absolutely worth the nights of insufficient sleep, and the sore calf muscles from racing up and down this buzzing city's hills, just to come upon work like that of Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Danças. This Brazilian troupe was in Edinburgh five years ago at Aurora Nova, a venue that since 2000 has been the benchmark for physical, visual and aural theatre on the Fringe. Rodrigues' Such Stuff As We Are Made Of was a two-part, five-star revelation. The first section featured naked dancers in bright light slowly executing marvelous trompe l'oeil effects with their bodies. In the second they came on like gangbusters, gesticulating and stomping about as if in a boot camp for proto-revolutionaries.

This year Rodrigues returned with the UK premiere of Incarnat. Inspired by Susan Sontag's essay The Pain of Others, and created in Rio de Janeiro's Favela de Maré (one of the a number of extremely impoverished and crime-ridden parts of the city), this bracing, ambiguous and unforgettable hour-long work is performed with great dignity and bravery by a cast of eight (some of whom come from the slums). Rodrigues' stylized series of tableaux features a lot of nudity and, no kidding, a lot of tomato ketchup. It bursts, flows and spews from their exposed bodies like blood or vomit. The night I saw it a woman in the front row fled from the auditorium, retching at the sights and/or the sweet-and-sour smell wafting towards the audience. Some spectators got the giggles during a later, Pieta-like image in which creamy white liquid leaked from a maternal figure's suckled breast. But Incarnat is neither a shallow gross-out nor a cheap send-up. It is a provocation, as well as an unflinching evocation of the beauty and the horror of human behaviour in the context of today's troubled, often devaluing society. Yes, it's about violence and cruelty; the monster inside us, embodied by a fierce male performer who runs like a beast from the theatre, is acknowledged and unleashed. There's a female angel, too, who steps carefully downstage, unclothed and with closed eyes, through red puddles and then stops, exhaling a sigh of relief. Ahhh! The next moment she's emptying herself of air, struggling for breath...

Demanding but deeply rewarding, the purity and purpose behind Incarnat puts most other contemporary dance shows to shame. It was devised in a big, rough studio Rodrigues founded in Maré, a largely unrecognized and ignored favela in central Rio ruled by three different factions of drug dealers. "They know about me more than I know about them, but I feel completely secure inside. Sometimes it's very sad. But there's life in the favela, and a lot of beauty. It's very special to go there. I love to work on this danger line."

Rodrigues, 51, is one of Brazilian dance's most socially committed dance-makers. "To be an artist in my country you have to resist," she says, referring in part to her own creative habits but also to the injustices of a governmental system sometimes lacking a clear cultural policy. "I see my company as a school. The work is the most visible thing we do, but it's only a small part of a big process of life. More important is having the space to learn together."

Although her dancers are salaried, and Rodrigues has co-production partnerships in Europe, the company itself is always in the red. "I don't care," she says, "because I'm so privileged. I do exactly as I think. I survive. I can eat, speak, travel. I have to share." She sees Incarnat as a vehicle of enquiry. "How do we work together to create communities? What do we feel when faced with the pain of others? Is it possible to get close to those who suffer? I love to have questions, not answers."

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated, and writes Critical Faculties as a regular column.


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Animated: Autumn 2007