As a gallant effort to keep the show on the road (or the screen) despite the cancellation of this summer’s edition, Edinburgh international festival has commissioned An Evening with Scottish Ballet. Although “evening” is pushing it, as this is more like a half-hour sizzle reel. Six short films packaged together, old and new, plus existing choreography filmed especially for Covid times by director Michael Sherrington.
There are two pieces from the company’s resident choreographer Sophie Laplane, full of stylish staccato riffs set to 4/4 machine beats. It’s a distinctive style, very watchable. In Oxymore, Rishan Benjamin and Anna Williams dance backstage in front of towers of flight cases and props. Their movement is straight-faced and straight-angled, a kind of un-groovy groove. Idle Eyes, filmed last year, is glitchier and quirkier, and benefits from the texture of a bigger cast, too.
Another pre-coronavirus film, Frontiers, by San Francisco Ballet’s Myles Thatcher, was filmed in 2019, under a concrete flyover. Thatcher aims to undo the gender stereotypes in ballet and he’s created gender-neutral partnering – the same choreography danced by two men, two women or mixed couples, spliced together with fast cuts until it all becomes a blur of identities. Flickering between dancers dressed in androgynous tailoring, the women do lifts, the men sort of swan dive, and it completely works as choreography. Crazy that this is still a boundary to push in 21st-century ballet, of course.
Alexander Whitley’s Prometheus & Epimetheus is a good-looking duet that uses a similar idea, a male and a female couple filmed separately, cut together – although the mildly dizzying effect of the circling camerawork makes it hard to really focus on the dance. That might be the idea, the camera and the choreography come with opposing priorities, like the titular brothers.
Trace is a revival of a 2013 pas de deux by Helen Pickett (who made the acclaimed The Crucible for Scottish Ballet last year), filmed especially for this programme. It’s a soft and restless duet that breathes with its Rachmaninov piano score, and it contains a number of niggling enigmas. Why is the tousle-haired Rimbaud Patron wearing skinny jeans and a long sleeved T-shirt – “normal” clothes – while his partner Claire Souet is in only a skimpy leotard? Sartorial choice or a question of power and dynamics? There are certainly layers to explore.
The programme’s completely new work is Catalyst, from company dancer Nicholas Shoesmith. It is filmed in Edinburgh’s empty Festival theatre, with one glowing lightbulb on stage looking out over a sea of red velvet seats. From a single dancer, the numbers increase exponentially (a viral metaphor?) until there’s a full company on stage, their faces masked, their individual spaces carefully measured and marked. They move in strong lunges and swipes with a muscular embrace of the space. You can see the restriction in the choreography, where arms are crossed over bodies as if straitjacketed, or spread like stuttering wings that can’t take off, but you can also feel the limit of mass unison movement, and the piece relies on the crescendoing drama of Ben Chatwin’s music to give it momentum.
Scottish Ballet is a savvy, modern company, forward-thinking on digital, seeking out choreographers beyond the names other ballet companies commission. These short films give a glimpse of all that and are slick, sharp and laudably inventive, but they also remind us that there’s no satisfying substitute for a meaty performance.