Luocha Land (3 stars) | Arab Arts Focus: Dance Double Bill | Border Tales (5 stars) | The Crossing Place (1 star)

Lucy Ribchester reviews Luocha Land (3 stars) | Arab Arts Focus: Dance Double Bill | Border Tales (5 stars) | The Crossing Place (1 star)

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Border Tales
Published 12 Aug 2017

While stories of unfamiliar places can broaden our understanding, tales of home are also useful to make us see it in a new light. Dance might not be the obvious choice for painting a map of the world, but with its sensory textures and visual details, it’s a medium that can strongly evoke a sense of place.

Luocha Land from the National Theatre of China is set in the fictional country of its title. Maji (Miao Zhao) washes up after a plane crash and finds himself surrounded by demons, some of who want to befriend him, others to imprison him. While incarcerated he discovers there are other humans here, hiding as demons, and that the laws of good and evil are reversed.

The land itself is beautifully evoked, with echoes of traditional pageantry and battle dances with long bamboo poles, all backed by a rowdy soundtrack. Multi-eyed masks representing the demons are held inches from the face to uncanny effect. As a theatrical experience it’s beguiling, and the theme of hostility towards otherness comes through. The only drawback is that it feels like the Mandarin dialogue cannot be done justice by the small snippet summaries projected onto the backcloth. However, this mythical tale conjures up the awe-inspiring spirit of traditional storytelling.

The Dance Double Bill in the Arab Arts Focus programme had the aim of showcasing artists from Egypt and Palestine and exploring identity in the context of their homelands. However, when we arrive at Summerhall’s Demonstration Room, choreographer Shaymaa Shoukry has an announcement. The UK Home Office has denied visas to Nagham Saleh and Hamza Damra. Saleh applied twice but was turned down on the grounds that she did not have enough money to support herself, despite the festival providing evidence of their financial support, and in Damra’s case the UK did not believe he was a student.

The denial of visas to artists from the Middle East is a troubling and increasing practice, brought to the headlines earlier in the year when Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi was only granted a visa to appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival after festival director Nick Barley led a public campaign for his case. More recently Conchita Wurst’s Syrian band members were also denied visas.

Shoukry has arranged for video excerpts of each scheduled piece to be shown as well as another of her own pieces, performed by Mahmoud el Haddad, a tribute to endurance that sees him running in circles to the point of exhaustion, while he states phrases that begin, "I will keep running until…"

Though on video Shoukry's piece danced by Saleh looks particularly interesting—textured movements based around shaking—it’s impossible to gain the same perspective on the work as a live performance would give. The absence of the artists makes for a bleak 45 minutes and it doesn't feel appropriate to give a star rating in the circumstances.

In light of this, Border Tales, also at Summerhall, feels an even more necessary piece of theatre. The production was created several years ago by Luca Silvestrini’s Protein in collaboration with London’s The Place, but has been updated to explore Brexit Britain via the experiences of its multicultural cast of seven.

The action centres around a party Northerner Andy is throwing to try and prove his integration credentials. But his blundering attempts to virtue signal expose a petri dish of underlying bigotries. He doesn’t care about the correct pronunciation of names, he infantilises his guests, and while he loves to celebrate diverse foods and dances, he would prefer it if people from backgrounds different to his own stayed in the small boxes he has allocated for them.

In the midst of all this, the cast members introduce themselves in dance-theatre solos. Temitope Ajose Cutting confronts us with the gestural stereotypes projected onto black women, the sassy finger snap and the booty-shaking dance. In a monologue she talks about her conflict between the Nigerian culture of her parents and the way she is bringing up her own children.

Salah El Brogy sends up confused assumptions about Egyptian customs—"I eat humous five times a day"—while a harrowing passage sees him interrogated with personal questions while being kicked about by an unseen force.

Always frank and unflinching, the tone veers between playful and sombre, and feels similar to the equally brilliant Nikesh Shukla-edited book, The Good Immigrant. Taking a demoralising, frightening issue and fighting it with wit and poetry cannot be an easy thing to do, but that is what Protein has achieved.

Late night The Crossing Place takes us back into fictional territory, but it is a landscape inhabited only by the minds of its three performers, members of the collective Romantika. The piece has been devised around the poetry of Tomas Tranströmer, but unfortunately the young troupe has not created enough of a framework to illuminate their insights or share their connections. There is nothing here we might be able to latch onto: just random recitations accompanied by dance, and theatrical confections such as chucking flour around. The place it speaks of most is one of artistic privilege given free rein.