Norma Cohen on a dance about war. The wars in former Yugoslavia have taken hold of my mind. It struck me as a country of real solidarity and with much to admire - none of the consumerism of the West but none of the repression and barely concealed desperation of eastern Europe. As the wars developed, I watched this seeming solidarity splinter into murderous factions." So says Fergus Early, artistic director of Green Candle Dance Company.
He reflects on his latest production, Old Man Dragging Stones, billed as a tragic farce of war with text by Macedonian playwright Goran Stefanovski.
Early says: "The commission came as a rare possibility to touch upon a subject which is, at it were, untouchable. The problem of the wars cannot be dealt with in banal realism. What seems to be the only possible approach is a hybrid form of theatre, music and dance which is Green Candle's practice."
Set in a town that could be Mostar, it features a bridge which becomes "the meeting place that spanned communities and joined races: now smashed, its river swollen with bodies dividing lovers, families and friends."
A tense, human triangle features a woman torn between her brother, a rabid nationalist, and her boyfriend from the other side. Wounded by the brother, he's imprisoned and left bleeding.
In the guise of a bag lady, Chantelle Nassari as the centuries old guardian angel of the bridge intervenes from her wheelchair, recalling an old Arabic fable in which God sent angels to spread their wings over gorges scratched out by the Devil. A section recalls an idyll when crickets sang, muezzins wailed and people sang love songs. Dancers wing their way through waltzes from the Austro-Hungarian empire into a "Makendonska" in a three-day wedding feast.
The aged brother returns in The Limbo of Truce, freeing the boyfriend, threatening to drown himself and pulling a stone which turns out to be the keystone of the bridge.Its underside bears the Arabic inscription: "The greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin is to interfere with it." The guardian angel spreads her wings to discard her bags. They're full of stones. The trio begin rebuilding. Stefanovski says: "If there is any healing, it's just that: putting one stone on top of another."
At times the piece bursts into absurdity, a Balkan Mad hatter's tea party . Chantelle Nassari's alluring angel adds glitteringly powerful balm.
Soaring music is composed by musical director Sally Davies from Macedonian, Bosnian and Balkan sources, for accordian, clarinet, cello, zither-like keyboard and a chorally-sung narrative.
Manchester Royal Exchange's David Short adds a blend of ethnic and clown like design. The woman sports a circus horse headdress of ostrich plumes; wearing a fez and sparkly jacket, her brother resembles a white-faced Grimaldi,and her boyfriend, in Macedonian skirt, a red-nosed, slapstick clown.
Created in residence with performing arts students from City and Islington College, north London (where a Bosnian refugee drama student contributed first-hand accounts), a national spring tour with education workshops includes plans for performances in Skopje, Bitola and Ohrid.
Geared to upper secondary, A-level and B Tec students, the show has riveted university audiences and a class of 11-year-olds. A first night audience included the Macedonian Ambassador, who faxed Skopje recommending the production be imported. A sixth form residency in Cambridge has prompted the dramadance teacher to base a term's work on the issues raised.
There is also an education pack which contains a history of Yugoslavia and its break up.
Green Candle Dance Company, 309 Aberdeen House, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2EA (071 359 8776).