Mahler and Dance, Playhouse, Edinburgh

Mahler calls the tune
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The Independent Culture

The Edinburgh Festival's last dance programme is its boldest. This is a collaboration, a series of performances that would not happen without the Festival's resources. Rambert Dance Company shows three dances, all to Mahler song cycles. The music is played live, in full orchestral versions; the bill includes one new ballet and two unusual revivals. The dancing is splendid.

The Edinburgh Festival's last dance programme is its boldest. This is a collaboration, a series of performances that would not happen without the Festival's resources. Rambert Dance Company shows three dances, all to Mahler song cycles. The music is played live, in full orchestral versions; the bill includes one new ballet and two unusual revivals. The dancing is splendid.

In his new Songs of a Wayfarer, Kim Brandstrup builds on the sense of drama he discovered in last year's Afsked. After the dithering speed and repetition of Brandstrup's work for Arc, his steps have slowed enough to have heft and impact.

The central relationship here is outside Mahler's song cycle. Rather than showing the poet's wanderings, Brandstrup returns to his broken love affair, with duets danced in silence between songs. The first gestures look limited - the poet catching at his beloved's foot. As the dance goes on, it becomes something like an Ingmar Bergman drama: you can see the hero's needs and insecurities driving him to make the same mistakes.

In the last duet, the relationship is ending. She moves away before he can catch her, or turns to stare him down. They both crumple. Thomasin Gulgec and Ana Lujan Sanchez are sternly sad lovers, giving emotional point to their still confrontations.

Brandstrup's choreography for the corps is weaker - or rather, his choreography to music is weaker. Mahler is popular with choreographers, but this isn't musique dansante. Branstrup follows the melody or drifts away, but never gets hold of his score. Paul Hoskins conducted a sumptuous performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with fine tone from the baritone Gerald Finley.

Steven Scott's designs are simple, a set with glowing panels and costumes of blue textured silk. A gauze casts a haze around the ballet, but it does blur the dancers' features. Throughout this programme, the lighting is too soft.

Five Rückert Songs is a tribute to Peter Darrell, the founder choreographer of Scottish Ballet, born 75 years ago. Rambert's new staging is much lusher than Scottish Ballet's own: full orchestra, opulent new designs by Yolanda Sonnabend. The men's jackets are fussily overtrimmed, but the women's dresses are splashes of crimson and yellow. "Scottish Colourist tones," said my companion, with approval.

In this ballet, Darrell abandoned his usual elaborate partnering for swoons and walks, simple duets. His heroine remembers her past, dancing with lovers and the corps, then sets herself to face the future alone. It looked stricter in Scottish Ballet's production, but no deeper. Darrell glides alongside Mahler, following the music's emotional haze.

The steps aren't distinctive, but Rambert's dancers give this ballet a moving sobriety. As the heroine, Angela Towler danced with thoughtful authority, holding still as music and dancers swirl around her.

Hoskins and the RSNO are at their most lush in Dark Elegies, Antony Tudor's ballet to the Kindertotenlieder. Some of the score's tautness gets lost, but it can be found in the clarity of Tudor's craftsmanship. A plain gesture fills a whole rich line of melody. Folk steps, with quick changes of direction, pull different rhythms to the surface. Tudor's ballet has no story, but it shows the aftermath of a tragedy. The company are dressed in plain peasant costume, their grief shared. The folk steps make it part of everyday life: these are working dances, built into the lament.

This is an impressive revival, danced with clear-eyed attention. Despite its reputation, Dark Elegies doesn't come across as a devastating ballet. Those layers of step and implication are sober, thoughtful rather than heartbreaking. It's not until the last song that the ballet turns to powerful sorrow. Fabrice Serafino tears into an angry solo, grief as rage. The corps churn into circle dances as darkness falls, then settle into calm as the music ends.

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