Think Coppélia and tutus, and pastoral scenes and clockwork pirouettes spring to mind. The 19th-century ballet is embedded in the classical dance canon, a wholesome if eccentric fairytale about a man who falls for a wooden toy, neglecting his fiancée. But with sex dolls hitting the headlines recently, the Coppélia story has been thrown into an altogether creepier and more prescient light. This is one of the reasons that circus company Feathers of Daedalus's promise to strip bare, swallow and spit out the original tale seemed like such an exciting one.
The production sort of delivers on some of this. Connie Dent’s doll costumes have a brittle creepiness in their stiff lace and pastel ribbons. Coppélia is wry and vacuous, compared to the hearty human Swanhilda. The real star of the show however is Sophie Leseberg Smith’s poetry, the only aspect that gets to grips with the sinister violence of sexual obsession. In voiceover Smith takes on the different roles of the main players. Her dramatic monologues have something of Carol Ann Duffy's The World’s Wife to their crafty perception and blunt language of lust.
The choreography isn’t complex enough though to match these poems, and the circus skills, while polished, aren’t quite in the league of other companies on the Fringe. Still, with ambition aplenty it will be intriguing to see what the Feathers do next.
Parlour Games at Assembly Roxy is also an interesting piece that which feels as though it could use a few more drafts. Four-strong company Tooth+Nail are ambitious in their attempts to overlap four separate timelines: the protagonist’s 1945 present; a flashback to his upbringing; the fantasy world within a childhood game; and a few unsettling traumatic memories of war.
It’s these last that are the gut punch of the piece, although the childhood game gets the most stage time. While it’s easy to see why the group made this decision—a swashbuckling gothic confection of battles, monsters and castles gives them the chance to flex their stagecraft muscles—it’s the least interesting of the four threads. When protagonist Theo takes on the grotesque walk of Frankenstein’s monster, then suddenly morphs into a PTSD-suffering lieutenant learning how to move again, we want to know more about what happened to him.
Shakespeare is no stranger to having his works adapted into dance but to tackle The Merry Wives of Windsor—a play riddled with double-crossings, plotted tricks and disguises—without words seems a tall order. Korean company Chang Moon further tie their hands behind their backs by using only four dancers. It’s a brave effort, but without intriguing choreography to latch onto there’s only the wisp of a storyline to try and follow, and it demands too much of the audience to bring their knowledge of the text to the piece.
James Cousins Company has taken a different approach to adapting Shakespeare. The neon cube set for Rosalind might not look much like the thickets and copses of the Forest of Arden, but this is no ordinary As You Like It. Cousins has instead distilled the story of Rosalind—who disguises herself as the boy Ganymede while on the run, and plays tricks on her lover-to-be Orlando—into an exhilarating four-hander of pure dance.
One woman lies sleeping inside the box while another comes to life outside. Is she a figment of the dreamer’s imagination, or are they the same person? She dons a frock coat and rock music kicks in. This forest of dreams is a punky, red-lit space where the cast let go of their inhibitions and relationships intertwine. She duets with Orlando, is picked up, twirled, cradled by him. But then all of a sudden we’re back at the start again. Rosalind’s role is taken over by a man and the action is replayed. The duet with Orlando is the most interesting part here, taking on the feel of a tussle between equals rather than a gallant courtship.
There are other intriguing touches: a louche striptease by the cast’s two women from suits to underwear, rotating around each other’s shoulders; Sabrina Mahfouz’s quizzical, philosophising poetry, which asks questions about gender and behaviour. Meanwhile little hints of Shakespeare in the hard-fronted corsets, the arms held Jacobean-jig style, the sensual coats, root us in the source text. It’s a masterclass in adapting a play into dance – more poetry than storytelling.
In Virago, it could be that Sue Lewis and John F. Wake’s young community company are looking to take the poetic rather than the linear route in their response to the story of Minnie McGuire, the most arrested woman in 19th-century Wales. But there is nothing thematic here to hook onto. Bags of potatoes are tossed to the floor, Irish jigs erupt, tales of the potato famine are given in voiceover. Minnie arrives in the piece towards the end, in the form of a ballad, and there is an interesting set construction of a gallows swinging with bottles. But it’s all too slight to rescue any fragments of the story or gain any real sense of who Minnie was.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Greenside @ Infirmary Street, run ended