Of, or at a fairly low temperature. Lewys Holt, Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre

‘Who’s your cool icon?’ Lewys Holt asks near the beginning of his one man show Of, or at a fairly low temperature (which is I guess a dictionary definition of ‘cool’). Two iconic figures immediately come to mind, Earl ‘Snake-hips’ Tucker, and The Dude in The Big Lewbowski.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild explains what cool is, in dance, by describing Tucker’s jazz solos from the 1920s and 1930s. These combined sinous hips movements and hyperflexible contortions with macho kicks and rippling, jazzy arms – all of his stunning virtuosity completely belied by his neutral facial expression. Cool, she writes, is the paradox between performing amazingly difficult feats while implying that they aren’t anything. No sweat.

The Dude is almost the opposite. His natural state is to appear to do nothing, and seem not to let the chaotic and disastrous things going on around him disturb his equanimity. But again, no sweat.

Lewys manages to be like both of them. He seems to have the lazy, narcissistic self-confidence to tell us that he’s cool and get away with it. In a bit of stand-up near the start he seems to be improvising lazily, almost as if he’s seeing how little he can do and get away with it. Just turning on the tap in a sink in the corner of the anatomy theatre gets a laugh.

[photo: Liam Keown]

Some of the things he does are pretty cool. He opens with a sequence where he plays a tiny toy guitar while his jeans fall down; he kicks them off, straightens them with his toes then somehow manages to wriggle his way back into them. while standing up. The way he stretches and wiggles his legs and hips makes them gradually creep back up to his waist.

[photo: David Wilson Clarke]

When he tells us about his first experiences of contemporary dance, he gets more serious. Talking about dance and masculinity, he wiggles a bit and raises questions about whether these are male. For me it is the confidence that allows him to claim to be cool that makes what he does masculine. And it makes me aware just how much things have changed since I first started writing about dance and masculinity in the 1980s.


[photographer: James Hissett. screenshots from Lewys Holt’s vimeo teaser at https://vimeo.com/user9558174%5D

Which brings me to Brexit. Bexit? This year at the fringe, my response to everything seems to be coloured by Brexit. It seems no accident to me that Bridget Christie, that most political of stand-up comics, had to rewrite her show after the referendum. She knew that the mood at the Fringe would have been changed by it. So why am I bringing this up in relation to Lewys’s show? It doesn’t refer to it – no jokes about having had enough of experts, or about the audience being split 48/52. But I got something from Of, or at a fairly low temperature that suggested to me a way of coping with the very worrying future that’s now facing us. How not to be knocked off centre by the unexpected, how to be cool in the face of risks.

There Lewys is at the end, falling onto the floor because of the way all the clothes he’s just put on are restricting his movements, splayed out and looking poignantly up at us with his shiny blue eyes, and somehow getting away with it. He can cope with it, no sweat.

[Declaration of interest: Lewys was one of my students.]

Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s discussion of Earl ‘Snake-hips’ Tucker is in Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts.

The Back of the Bus. Java Dance, Assembly George Square.

The Back of the Bus is an immersive dance work by the New Zealand dance company Java Dance that is performed on the top deck of a bus. The audience are taken on a journey through the Old Town in Edinburgh with some parts performed at stops along the way. Initially created in New Zealand in 2008 by choreographer Sacha Copland, it has been revived for the Edinburgh Fringe.

As the bus drives off, Copland runs to catch it – it is an old red routemaster with and open platform at the back. To music by Vivaldi she bursts chaotically up to the top deck, clutching uncertainly her many overfilled bags, and swaying as she makes her way precipitously to the front, empties her bag to find something lost, and gradually fills the aisle with its contents along with crisps, pennies from her purse.


[Back of the Bus, in Edinburgh, photo Ramsay Burt]

A second young woman does a more balletic solo to Jane Birkin’s breathily seductive single Di Doo Da. Swinging on the handrails and poles, she manages to lean over or sit beside or on the lap of about half of the audience and then, when the bus stops, she leads us out onto the meadow for an impromptu gently participatory activity.


[Back of the Bus, outside on the Meadows in Edinburgh, photo Ramsay Burt]

Back on the bus again, for a solo by a third woman and then bus stops in front of a Pilates and Natural Health Centre where a dancer gets into a difficult very extended, sculptural, yoga pose which she holds – calmly and amazingly steadily – for a couple of minutes. Then back into the bus to overhear a rather embarrassing mobile phone conversation between Copland and one of her friends who’s just found out she’s pregnant. Then back in George Square where we started, we are led down to an underground bar where we are treated to a funky solo to James Brown’s I Feel Good.

People had perhaps taken a risk choosing to come on the bus – an unknown situation with, perhaps, the danger of having to interact. But then what the dancers actually did was not at all threatening so people allowed themselves to unwind. The dancers interacted with the audience, gradually breaking down barriers so that by the end everyone seems happy and relaxed.

The choreography makes good use of the poles and rails in the bus for swinging and climbing. But probably the key thing about the bus is it is an enclosed, intimate space with a small audience so that they see the dancers up close.

[Sacha Copland in Back of the Bus in New Zealand]

One young girl who, near the beginning, was reluctant to accept a marshmallow from Copland, was by the end dancing along to James Brown quite uninhibitedly in the public bar. It was a feel good performance, lots of eye contact with performers and lots of smiles.

Somehow for me it was clear that the dancers weren’t British, weren’t still in shock about the Brexit vote. This show is too optimistic. But there again, we could really do with some optimism right now. There is a quote from the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci that I’ve seen in a few articles recently in which he talks about being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.

[Back of the Bus during a Lancashire tour – from http://theshuttle.org.uk/%5D

With their gentle baroque chamber music and nostalgic French chanson, their steady balance, their sense of humour, and their boundless energy, Java Dance exemplify optimism of the will. They helped me briefly forget the current political turmoil. But the shows I’ve been most impressed by this year in the Fringe are the ones that offer me intelligent and affective ways of coping with and surviving the present troubles. Maybe I’m too cynical but much as I enjoyed Back of the Bus it didn’t quite give me what I feel I’m looking for in our current dark times.

Water on Mars, Gandini Juggling at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

This evening I’ve just seen Gandini Juggling’s new show Water on Mars at Assembly Roxy as part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It is the third piece of theirs that I’ve seen; two years ago there was their wonderful, Pina Bausch themed Smashed. Last year I saw 4×4 Ephemeral Architectures which brought together jugglers with ballet dancers. Both pieces had quite large casts, but this year’s show is for three young energetic men and seems to me not to have a theme but just to be straight, unbelievably virtuoso juggling.

The individual sequences are cleverly put together to make great theatre. The three jugglers – Wes Peden, Tony Pezzo & Patrik Elmnert – can do extraordinary, literally incredible things but start small, gradually drawing us in the audience in to the show and making us look more closely at what they’re doing and then building up more and more complicated sequences. They use clubs, then they use balls, hoops, clubs that magically attach together end-to-end then disconnect again to become single clubs. Then weird combinations of clubs stuck together with sellotape, and even toilet rolls, and bags of toffees.

[photo from http://www.gandinijuggling.com]

I’m not a circus insider, but once spent a few days at the Circus Space in London with a choreographer who was making a show on some students there. Always at the back of studio a few, who were not actually involved in the particular bit being rehearsed, would be practicing juggling, their attempts punctuated by noisy crashes as all their clubs hit the floor. What’s so magical about watching Gandini Juggling is that everything works perfectly, nothing is dropped unless it is intended. I guess juggling is so demanding because there’s no room for error. But perfection can be static, and subject to the laws of diminishing returns. It is the way Gandini Juggling deal with this which makes their shows so interesting.

Two things usually strike me about their shows. First, the subtle patterns in the sequences that the jugglers make. In a sequence where an arc of clubs are rising to medium height in a regular pulse, and suddenly each man makes his club soar up much higher in perfect unison; or with balls, they alternately each throw one ball up and as it comes down throw up two in its place.

The second thing is the way the shows try to make us look at juggling differently, as if we’ve never looked at it properly before. In all the Gandini shows I’ve seen there are sequences where three people stand so close together that they all seem to be juggling the same balls in one single arc, reaching or snatching through each other’s arms to keep the balls going. One person almost with six hands and three faces.

Another extraordinary sequence has one man holding a big down transparent plastic storage box upside in front of another who juggles balls up into it, bouncing them inside off the top or sides. An ordinary, household object that one would never have thought of using in this kind of way.

[photo from http://www.gandinijuggling.com]

The final sequence gets wilder and more energetic – they’re young and bursting with energy. In it they seem to break all the rules, deliberately knocking one another so that they drop their clubs; throwing so many hoops in the air that they can possibly catch them. Then there’s the toilet rolls, some of which they end up throwing into the audience, then they juggle with open, half litre bottles of spring water so that each leaves a trail of water in the air that shines momentarily in the lighting. One crazy thing after another in quick succession, faster and crazier rushing headlong to end in a satisfyingly wild frenzy.

Then, as we file out, there are the jugglers and stage crew hard at it clearing up the mess and mopping the floor because another show is scheduled shortly. I’m full of admiration, amazement, and exhaustion.