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Mesmerised By Women, but for One Notable Exception: 2013 Edinburgh Festival Review

22/08/2013 21:54 BST | Updated 22/10/2013 10:12 BST

There are some dancers I wish I'd seen live. Nijinsky at the height - or depth - of his tormented and inspiring collaboration with Diaghilev. Nureyev and Fonteyn towards the end of their joint career, physically stronger than ever, each move made electric by their chemistry; it doesn't matter that he was mainly gay and she was married to a tyrant, as artists I believe they were in love with each other. I wish I'd been around when Martha Graham, Pina Bausch, Twyla Tharp and the Rambert and Ailey companies were transforming the way dancers move and devisers stage, costume, score and choreograph work. I wish I'd seen Sylvie Guillem in anything other than a dreadful faux-exotic confection called Eonnagata at Sadler's Wells a few years ago. Guillem was incredible but the choreography was so blah that on the way out someone - all right, I admit, it was me - commented loudly, "Maybe 'Eonnagata' is Japanese for 'crap.'"

In my 10 days at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival, which closes this weekend, I've tried to see as much as possible in between my presenting commitments. So far, the bigger ticket events have been a little disappointing. I had been looking forward to Philip Glass's live score to Cocteau's creepy, crystalline, visually breathtaking film La Belle et La Bete but his contribution bunged up the fairytale's ethereality with a ninety minute bing-bong-bing-bong queasy sonic seesaw. That said, the new opera-style vocals were spine-tinglingly wonderful, erotic and resonant.

Fauré's Requiem was sloppily conducted, despite a powerful choir. A colleague went to see Beethoven's opera, Fidelio, and gave me a one word review: "Mistake." A showcase of contemporary dance classics at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre was unevenly padded out with the famous film of Jiri Kylian's unique use of Debussy's L'Apres Midi Une Faune, with dancer Sabine Kupferberg; you could watch exactly what we saw here and save yourself the visit. There was a live performance of the great silent (but for dancers' stamping feet) Tharp piece The Fugue, but then the bemused audience was ushered to the foyer to watch an interesting but short and hardly classic piece called Jealousy by new chorographer James Cousins.

Christopher Hampson's interpretation of The Rite of Spring - one of the most groundbreaking, disturbing and radical pieces of dance, music, costume and staging ever created - distilled and aerated the original notation satisfyingly, but turned the narrative of female baiting and sacrifice on its head. It pared the cast down to three and recast the scene, obviously, as one in which a soldier (complete with crushingly literal soldier costume of jackboots, combat trousers and army vest) beats a male prisoner to death. It was brutish and unsubtle, plainly violent rather than painfully eerie as the original had been. The most shocking thing remained the music, which hadn't been meddled with. Even in this flawed and one-dimensional production, though, I am still floored by the sheer power of The Rite of Spring.

Away from the official programme I yawned through a lacklustre cirque actrobatique tired bit of tat called Bianco, by the NoFit State circus group. Amidst lots of whooping and boisterous self-geeing-up from the cast, the audience had to stand for two hours and be shuffled around a sweaty big top by stewards as the performers (the usual: ropes, trapeze, suspension tricks, juggling, hoops, balancing) shoved their scaffolds, supports, safety harnesses and rigging around to set up each unremarkable section of the show. During the twenty minute interval the audience was expelled onto the gravel wasteland outside. We stood there, blinking in wordless misery. The striking moments never came, except for a great aerialiste and a trapeze artist, both in the second half, and a jolly live band. Hint: if you're in a band in your late thirties and you never 'made it', you're not going to 'make it' now. That moment is not about to happen.

The greatest treat for dance fans at Edinburgh was the Booking Dance festival produced and programmed by Jodi Caplan, here for the fifth year running. Through their showcases, rep works, split bills and tasters they are attracting new international audiences to the best of contemporary American dance. Through Booking Dance I discovered the light, fast, fluid work of the New York based Teresa Fellion Dance company, filled with wit and levity. Meanwhile, the Synthesis Dance Project, whose artistic director is Tracie Stanfield, thrilled and mesmerised with their versatility, their musicality, their masterful fusion of classical and contemporary forms and their combination of integrity and intellectual rigour on the one hand - or foot - and sharp instinct for entertaining on the other. I'd like to see the Booking Dance strand gaining even greater prominence at Edinburgh in the years to come. Their work is fresh, diverse and brilliantly put together.

Elsewhere, other women mesmerised. I've covered the solo stage pieces Head Over Heels In Saudi Arabia and Don't Wake Me already; both deserve London runs in major venues and bold-font international tours. The best performer I've seen this year is the dancer and choreographer Olga Kosterina, from Russia, performing her show Dilemma at the Hill Street Solo Theatre until 25th August. Intense, acute, blindfolded and fierce, Kosterina's dark drama is a taut knot of contemporary dance, controlled intensity, balletic leaps, gymnastics, contortion (both physical and emotional) and sharp visual imagery. No frills, just dark and abandoned thrills - and all from one body and one mind. As I watched I felt the power of the work cutting into me like a laser, but Kosterina deserves a bigger stage, more time and deeper resources to shine as she deserves to. Either way, I think Kosterina is the single new major name in contemporary dance.

I sat through the cut-glass accented comic character Chastity Butterworth's show - imagine a cross between Lady Mary from Downton Abbey and Cynthia Payne; nothing funnier than a posh woman saying obscene things - and watched it slide painfully from uptight hilarity to something messier. Having seen a fantastic five minute Butterworth presentation at a Funny Women showcase in 2011, I was disappointed by this flimsy hour. Butterworth is created and performed by actress and comedian Gemma Whelan and has the makings of a classic but to convince viewers you have to stay completely and deeply in character and in control, script every joke, don't introduce subsidiary characters, don't read aloud from your notebook, keep the tone even, don't panic when very minor things go wrong and don't involve the audience and then become infected by their embarrassment and inadvertently make it clear that you are, in fact, a 21st century creative who's just trying to make it in this brutal world, just like the rest of us. You have to float impeccably above. Sorry to hector like... well, like Miss Butterworth... but I so want this to work because, actually, she is chuffing brilliant, as she might say herself.

Writing-wise my 2013 discovery is novelist Denise Mina: witty, fiery, clever, politicised, prolific and blazing with charismatic energy. She had the audience roaring with laughter, thinking, asking and debating everything from policing to Scottish independence to crime noir to research in fiction. She's the author of powerfully written and intelligent literary crime fiction and the brains behind the feministically and artistically triumphant graphic novel adaptation of the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo trilogy. I know I'm coming to Mina late as I've heard buzz about her work for years. But I'm on board now. By the way, she wrote for Hellblazer.

Madonna has just turned 55. All hail Madonna. I don't want to hear any sniping. She's strong, she's gifted, she's shrewd, she's independent and she's a survivor. She's an amazing dancer, she's made three perfect albums (Like A Prayer, Ray of Light and Confessions on a Dancefloor), she has the instincts of a war god, she's built like an Olympic athlete and one of her kids' books features a heroine called Lotsa de Casha - come on, I don't even need to reach for a punchline. The heroine's called Lotsa de Casha! She directed W.E., passed the Bechdel test with it and made a beautiful, interesting, sexy, watchable, historically accurate and excellently researched film. The King's Speech, which covers roughly the same time period, was a starkly sexist, dull (literally: it has a bottle green background) atrocity. Created by a club of all white mainly men, it had no meaningful role for a woman: Wallis Simpson is dismissed as a sexually corrupt gold-digger, the Queen Mother is perky portly perfect and the speech therapist's wife is a mincing, tired mumble-mouse. The wily slag, the matronly helpmeet and the cringing doormat: three sexist clichés. Thanks chaps! The King's Speech got all the Oscars and Madonna got all the insults.

To celebrate her M-ness I saw an upbeat young gentlemen tell her life story and perform her songs on the cabaret piano at a plushy bar called The Boards. It was all very sparkling rosé. The jokes came lean, strong and fast, like Madonna herself. "I'm now 55. Let me rephrase that: I'm no longer in my twenties. But I've always owned the dancefloor. People ask me what my favourite song is and I say, That would be like choosing my favourite out of all my children. I say, I can't choose my favourite out of all my children! Actually, I can, and I choose Lola." The evening ended with Like A Prayer, one of the most beautiful pop songs ever crafted.

If only other people liked an independent woman as much as I do. At Brown's restaurant the chap took one look at me and gave me the spinster's table. Every lone woman knows this table: it's the one next to the till, the pepper grinders, the spare menus and the plastic tray containing cutlery. I complained to a waitress, told her I knew what the spinsters' table was, moved myself and then said loudly, "We're rich, we're well-dressed and we're self-made. You should be putting us in the window."

Incidentally, the worst spinster's table I've ever been put at is table 16 at The Fellow on York Way in London. The day it was done to me, during a break in the middle of a conference I was hosting, I sat in the really quite empty restaurant and made a list, in my Smythson Panama, of what I could see:

Pillar immediately in front; my table is braced against it. Kitchen hatch diagonally to my right. Open door showing grubby stairs leading down to cellar immediately on my right. Paper sign pointing to the toilets to the right of that. Just behind the pillar in front of me: a sideboard with two grey plastic cutlery trays, an industrial sized tub of Heinz tomato ketchup, a bread board with some whole loaves on it and an enormous bowl full of butter with a knife stuck into it. I can also see the screen of the computerised till. I'm close enough to the kitchen hatch to hear the entire conversation of the cooks inside (all men, no women, although they are talking about women) and I can see that they have a little soap dispenser and a fire blanker in a white plastic case with a red sign and white instructions on the wall, and tubs (with green lids) of herbs and oil. The stairs going down to the cellar has white painted brickwork that's really dirty. A guy trudges down the stairs with a tray of dirty dishes. Stacked above the stairs I can see the blue plastic tub of a floor mop and three white plastic buckets.

Restaurants of the world, you should be grateful for women like me. We are tough, we are cool. We have learned how to survive in a hostile environment - one which you yourselves are creating. After eating my meal at table 16, staring at the pillar, I have not been back to The Fellow, but I will tell you, Fellow fellows, what I have done: I've told everyone.

Speaking of duff environments, I was all geared up for my last two days in Edinburgh. I'd spent the previous eight at the Premiere Inn in Lauriston Place, which was spotless, spacious, professional and convenient. The last two nights, I booked myself into The Grassmarket. As with people, so with establishments: the ones who think of themselves as cool, or niche, or hipster, or trendy, are usually just wincingly arrogant, pretentious try-hards with way too much attitude and not enough practicality. Clanging water pipes, gritty dirt on the hardwood floors, aggravatingly cute little homemade illustrations and notices on everything, enormous digital TV that didn't work properly, no desk or bedside table space, a wall papered with front covers of childhood comic the Dandy, WiFi that didn't reach the bedrooms, no place to put your luggage or unpack and shelve your clothes properly, a lift that only went up to the first floor (my room, 304, was on the third), having to drag my luggage through endless shoulder-width corridors full of heavy doors and odd steps. The staff member I dealt with was fantastic but the whole over-determined, over-designed, self-conscious, inconvenient, under-performing piece of theatre just stuck in my throat. I like upscale, I hate cute. I like strutting, I hate mincing. I like it totally bleak or totally chic and nothing in between. The Grassmarket people are good at set dressing and should be decorating and running a coffee bar or buying products for a homewares boutique, not managing a hotel. It was like renting a studio box apartment in alphabet city in New York, before it became gentrified. That might have been fun at some point. But there are times in life when you realise you're just about eight years too old to enjoy it.

Finally, there are lots of free shows on at the Edinburgh Fringe. My favourite was the one put on, all day, every day, by the doormen at the Hotel Missoni. They're in heavy Missoni-print kilts, black T-shirts, thick black knee high socks and black boots and they just stand there, all day, on the steps, smiling bravely, being sculpted and perfect and crop-headed and groomed and beautiful. So you cannot say I went to Edinburgh and was too busy working or visiting shows to admire the scenery.