Edinburgh Festival '99: The naked and the ridiculous

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The Independent Culture

DURING ALL those years when we waited impatiently for Edinburgh to get itself a decent new theatre, most of us must have imagined seeing big ballet companies there. But now that we have the Empire Theatre rebuilt as the Festival Theatre, what is it showing? Last week started well with William Forsythe's Artifact, which combined classical ballet with adventurous innovation, but since then things have gone from the not-quite sublime to the entirely ridiculous.

On the main stage, the exiled American choreographer Meg Stuart showed her Brussels-based company in an 80-minute piece which was made in collaboration with the visual artist Ann Hamilton. Very chaotic, very unstructured, rather messy. Meanwhile, the French choreographer Boris Charmatz has been presenting his repertoire of short, unconventional dances at late-night shows in various nooks and crannies around the theatre. The experience is more like what the Fringe might aspire to if it had more resources. Whether any of it is a worthwhile dance experience is another matter. Charmatz began his series with a duet dating from 1993, A bras le corps, which he and Dimitri Chamblas, fellow dancer and co-choreographer, performed hemmed in on all sides by spectators. They looked like a pair of affectionate wrestlers, grappling, hugging, dragging, rolling and jumping. It was nothing very new, but the setting gave it novelty, highlighting every breath and bead of sweat. Charmatz has since moved on to more recent pieces, such as Les Disparates and Aatt Enen Tionon, performed nude.

Nobody performs without clothes in Meg Stuart's Appetite, but they do spend a lot of time removing, donning or revealing hidden garments. Other obsessions are hitting, kicking or spitting at each other. There is also a lot of sitting or lying around. All this on a stage which Ann Hamilton at first covers with a dirty sheet, which is soon removed to reveal an even messier floor covering that gets sprinkled with crumbs and other detritus.

The "installation art" flowed over into the audience, where many empty seats in the stalls had towels or such like folded across their backs. I looked forward (from the safety of my seat in the circle) to learning what these towels were for, but apparently they weren't for anything.

The programme book contains pages of tosh by Stuart and Hamilton about their intentions and purposes in all this. For example: "The animate and the inanimate transform as the body meets the object in an embrace with the audience." None of their blather appeared to relate to what we actually saw on stage. Perhaps the most apt response was that of two balloons, blown up and released at the end to blow a flatulent raspberry.

Stuart calls her company Damaged Goods. Just so.

Boris Charmatz's `Herses (Une lente introduction)' is at the Festival Theatre (0131-473 2000) tonight and tomorrow at 10.30pm