Wednesday 10 August 2016

monumental – EIF, Playhouse, Edinburgh

[seen 09/08/16]

To be honest, I’d forgotten this was going to be on. The Edinburgh International Festival’s publicity this year is, well, low-key to say the least. If I had Godspeed You! Black Emperor in my Festival there would be posters fucking everywhere. At the very least, people definitely wouldn’t be able to forget it was happening. But, no... I was only reminded of it by chance, because Facebook’s mysterious algorithims waved Andrzej Lukowski’s Time Out review in my face at lunchtime. So I booked a (very reasonably priced £12, rear stalls) ticket (there were *a lot of tickets left unsold*) and went. I had been swayed, yes, by AZJ’s status: “the Godspeed dance show is amazing, see it tonight if you're in Edinburgh and possibly can...” I’d wanted to go anyway (I’ve loved the band since about 2000, I think). But maybe what really swung it for me was seeing the Telegraph’s headline “... a Monumentally self-important show... Has ‘niche’ stamped all over it...”

It’s not. Obviously it’s not, and it doesn’t. Only the fucking Telegraph could start a review “Godspeed You! Black Emperor are an anti-establishment post-rock collective from Canada...” and make it sound like a criticism, but, truth be told, I didn’t end up much liking it either.

It starts interestingly/promisingly enough. The nine dancers of The Holy Body Tattoo (apparently a re-formed Canadian contemporary dance group) stand on nine short square pillars and throw shapes (see photo. Indeed, if you stare at the photo, imagine it twitching a bit, and listen to Godspeed on full volume, you’ve seen 4/5ths of the show). The band, unseen, play one of their pieces. (I had their entire oeuvre on untitled MP3s in one folder labelled GYBE, so you’re not going to be getting much information on *which* pieces out of me.) The music is great. The stage set and dancing are *ok*. The lighting’s quite nice.

The dancers are all dressed in office-wear, which feels limiting far more than you’d imagine it could. It reminds you of all those sixth-form/undergraduate pieces of physical theatre about the indignity of labour (yes, Leeds University’s Doctor Faustus, Edinburgh 1998, I *am* thinking especially of you). And the movement... Well, it’s early days, but it does look worryingly like all that knock-off Pina Bausch stuff that Steve Hoggett’s been hawking around since, well, also about 1998... Actually, Steve Hoggett’s movement sequences for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were probably better than anything here, to be honest.

Part of the problem is that it’s all so sodding derivative. A bunch of choreographers – the late Pina Bausch; Hofesh Shechter; that Dutch lot, Schwalbe; Sasha Waltz; even Steve Hoggett, actually – could mount and easily win a class action lawsuit for copyright infringement against Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon. For the first hour or so, given time, I reckon you could find the dance piece that every single sodding movement was nicked from.

But, while I was formulating this realisation, it still seemed an interesting enough set-up. A kind of static Canadian take on Einar Schleef’s production of Sportstück, the dancers atop their plinths – simultaneously Olympians and office workers perched on the highest buildings after some global-warming catastrophe floods their city. Of course, Schleef’s Sportstück without the spectre of fascism is kind of nothing. A sort of toothless Olympic opening ceremony, albeit one from a host nation hell-bent on depressing everyone with dire warnings of impending apocalypse before the sports even start.

Another problem was the dogged, on-the-nose literalism of the movement, while at the same time demonstrating its complete inability to tell any kind of story. I’m not saying it *had to* tell a story, more that it looked like it was trying to and failing. No. Unfair. After about an hour, there was a generally agreed sense that there was some sort of apocalypse. And the dancers were finally allowed off their perches for twenty minutes. But, blimey, it felt incredibly limited. And all the more so, because of the music...

Godspeed You! Black Emperor were, of course, magnificent, but, squirrelled away behind a gauze – and often behind a descended curtain (I’m sure the absolute identical similarities between this set-up and Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother are wholly coincidental). I mean, having seen it, I’d have rather just had the band. And I *like* contemporary dance (when it’s good).

Moreover... I mean, you’ve heard GY!BE, right? They’re astonishing. The usual adjective is probably “soaring,” right? I mean, in a way, I almost admire the perversity of taking all *that music* and making something so unbelievably hum-drum to accompany it. But, Christ! Not even modern, or forward-looking hum-drummery. No. Physical theatre/dance-theatre drudgery from 1998. And not even the cutting edge of it then. Maybe there’s a slight problem that the music is too dramatic, and flattened the efforts of the dancers somewhat, and the choreographers responded by trying to turn up the performances, or something.

Whatever it was, it felt like the whole thing would have been better if the band had just been allowed to play, centre stage, and this dance had been dispensed with entirely, or perhaps, moved to the rear, and maybe interpreted with video cameras, Katie Mitchell-style. I mean, not this dance; nothing was ever going to save that; but somewhere out there there’s the possibility of making *great* gig/dance/theatre. This just wasn’t it.  Which is a pity. 

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