Mention to people that you are setting off for a day of previews at Dance Base, and you find yourself receiving a somewhat uniform response: won’t that be an awful lot of dance for one day?  Yet, even if I weren’t the sort of person who had yet to experience such a thing as ‘too much dance’, it wouldn’t hold true.  For, of all the self-contained festivals within the Fringe, for my money, Dance Base Festival provides the greatest amount of variety across even the smallest selection of its shows.

Take the two highlights of my Friday there, The Humours of Bandon from Fishamble: The Play Company and James Wilton Dance’s LEVIATHAN: one, a multi-character monologue about Irish dancing competitions in the early 2000s; the other, a dialogue-free take on Moby Dick.  Leaving aside the shared venue, there’s precious little connective tissue between the two apart from an attraction to physical movement within a space – and, even here, their two approaches couldn’t be more distinct.

The Humours of Bandon follows Annie O’Loughlin-Harte from age 16 to 18 as she pursues her quest to win an Irish Open championship trophy.  Lovingly packing it to the brim with the authentic details of its time, place and milieu – down to the repeated bendies-and-hairspray routine preceding each competition try – writer Margaret McAuliffe performs a half-dozen or so parts within the play’s duration, although it is always Annie who inevitably takes centre stage.

By making the play’s main character an enthusiastic teenager who needs to intermittently explain various aspects of her abiding passion to indifferent parents, friends or randomers, McAuliffe subtly works in just enough essential exposition for those unfamiliar with Irish dancing, yet never so much as to bore the well-versed.  Her physical performance – often illustrating the details of what she’s explaining – is carried out with an enthusiasm as infectious as it is engrossing.

The technical construction is no less impressive than its execution: one memorable scene has Annie hastily practicing a prize-attempt routine whilst being berated by her teacher, with both sides simultaneously portrayed by McAuliffe.  The overall result here is something akin to a one-woman Whiplash, except one that this feels both more human and more identifiable – and, by the end, I was far more fascinated with féiseanna than I ever could be with a jazz drumming showcase.

There is, understandably, very little wiggle room for portraying whales in fiction: in one way or another, it’s your lumbering beast, awesome in size and destructive power.  There can be kindness of a sort at times, but it is always that of the unthinking gentle giant.  What LEVIATHAN does is to turn all that on its head: here, the humans are the thoughtless, brutal, animalistic ones – the whale, represented by a blindingly white costume and performed by the only woman of a seven-member company, is lithe, graceful, omniscient.

This reframing of the titular Moby Dick transforms its power from that of an object of profit, revenge or worship into one of a more complex allure.  And, though it is fairly disappointing that a novel with central roles for Polynesian, Native American and African people should be reinterpreted by an entirely white cast, the regendering of the whale remains a strikingly effective yet remarkably simple way of introducing a part for a woman into a story which otherwise has no significant female characters.

Joan Clevillé Dance’s The North seemed to attempt a synthesis of the narrative and representative, throwing in plenty of absurdist humour along the way.  An amnesiac man finds himself in a mysterious place called Northof – which is, naturally enough, located ‘north of’ everywhere else – not knowing why he is there or how he arrived.  He is greeted by two women, both of whom lie dead centre on the manic pixie dream girl spectrum.  Shenanigans ensue, occasionally accompanied by ABBA.

Aiming hard at whimsy and magic, the whole thing comes off as one part cloying, another part male fantasy fulfilment; the overall result is something akin to if Kafka were rather unsatisfyingly reimagined by Miranda July.  Surprisingly heavier on dialogue than physicality, it was certainly the Fringeiest of the productions, with extended sequences of people talking like Donald Duck or pretending to be animal shapeshifters going on far longer than strictly necessary.

Its cast dressed in identical outfits, marching percussively in 4/4 time, Kuo-Shin Chauang Pangcah Dance Theatre’s 038 felt frequently reminiscent of military manoeuvres, albeit in a more stylised incarnation.  Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to the piece that I failed to grasp, but its apparent themes of displacement and of homelands lost never really took hold, and it came across more as an (admittedly flawless) display of technique than conveying anything wholly essential.

Zoltán Vakulya and Chen-Wei Lee x ART B&B’s Together Alone, meanwhile, communicated something more profound as its two dancers performed naked, refusing to lose contact with each other.  The combination of performance strictures and nudity, however, felt fairly gimmicky; setting these to one side, it seemed to offer little apart from the sight of two people rolling around on each other.  As fearless as it may have been, it also seemed far from daring or vital; the choreography, in direct opposition to the performance itself, felt unadventurous and unfocussed.

But, given that it came as the conclusion to seven hours of previews, perhaps I really had had too much dance by this point; certainly, the friends who accompanied me said they found the piece both meditative and relaxing.  In any event, it certainly won’t stop me looking forward to the second half of my 2017 Dance Base Festival programme.  Whatever those remaining shows may have to offer, I know there will be little chance of their failing to surprise.

Photo Credits:

Humours of Bandon – Maria Falconer
Humours of Bandon 2 – Patrick Redmond
LEVIATHAN – Maria Falconer
The North – Nicole Guarino
038 – Chen-Chou Chang
Together Alone – Maria Falconer

For more on Dance Base and what’s on click here.