Kay Smith looks at an unconventional dance workshop
William Forsythe's ballet, Artifact, turns every theatrical and dance convention on its head. The notion of a comfortingly coherent story with a beginning, middle and end is jettisoned for a jigsaw whose pieces are picked up randomly by the choreographer as he shouts out commands during the performance to dancers who then have a split second in which to decide how best to respond.
Such was the challenge facing the 24 British dancers, aged 16 to 38, taking part in the Edinburgh International Festival's Scottish Power Summer Dance School. Led by Jill Johnson, along with tutors Francesca Harper and Dylan Elmore - all of whom have danced with Forsythe's own company Ballet Frankfurt - it provided a sound basis for a workshop combining classical and creative dance techniques.
One of the "pieces" of the jigsaw the students had to learn was what Johnson called "Nine point", a sequence of classical arm and foot movements, simple in themselves but to be performed in a number of directions and on a number of planes within an imaginary nine-point cube. The cube could rest on any side, so the dancers had to be prepared to perform facing any direction, or even lying on their backs. "Change your floor," Johnson instructed.
Another was "Hyno", a series of sweeping gestures. Then there was "Reorientation", which features one arm extended in one position as the body moved in as many different directions as possible around it. Throw in animal sounds and movements, a room whose furniture could be used as a basis for creative writing (what Johnson called "room writing"), clips of music from blues, to rap, to chamber, and you begin to get an inkling of what Johnson described to the students as "deconstructed chaos - it's absolute, it's in your face, it's real Alice-in-Wonderland down-the-rabbit-hole territory".
The students worked in a large square in the main hall of the Festival's new Hub centre. Each corner of the square was the home base of one jigsaw piece. Shouting, sometimes screaming, the tutors instructed 10 of the dancers to move together, first to one base, then to another, changing their movement accordingly.
Two of the dancers were told to do a duet, one performing "Nine point," the other "Hypno." One then strutted sassily forward in response to the instruction: "Show us your nails!" Keeping up everyone's energy, Johnson yelled: "Put your butt into it." Francesca Harper shouted: "Come on, come on, be absolute manics. Test your limits."
Peter Twynam, a student at the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance in Dundee, was instructed to do "Hyno" from corner to corner on his stomach, while making pig sounds. Later he had to act out serving up hot chocolate to the rest of the dancers. Was having all these apparent indignities heaped on him worth it? Twynam, who has been attending the Festival dance workshops for five years now, admitted it was not what he had expected. "But it does show how you turn classical ballet completely upside down," he said.
Earlier in the workshop, Twynam had partnered professional dancer Sarah Graham in an animal movement and sound improvisation. She hopes to train in community dance and become a dance tutor. The workshop was providing her with lots of material: "It also shows how dance can be used on two levels - to help improve physical co-ordination as well as to break down barriers between people," she said.
Claire Henderson Davis, who is studying for a PhD in theology at Edinburgh while enjoying dance in her leisure time "as a serious part of my life", found she had struggled with the technical demands of the workshop, but it was worth it. The choreography was "true architecture as well as ballet", she said.
All the participants appreciated being able to work with tutors who were also international class dancers. "Because of their classical training they move like animals, soft and unique," said Keira Martin, a graduate of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds. "They are current in dance," said her equally appreciative colleague Vanessa Cook.
The pair are choreographing their own work along with a visual artist. They now have extra vocabulary to work with. They have also had their minds
broadened about ballet - in its pure form Cook said it could be downright "boring". But Forsythe's team had shown her that nothing is impossible.
"They are bringing out ballet's positive side."