The opening and closing events of the Edinburgh International Festival are always something people look forward to. Not least of which is that these high level, flagship events are free to attend. This year is the 75th Anniversary of the Festival, and while the Festival Fireworks Concert is cancelled this year, the Festival is giving away 35,000 tickets (see more on free tickets).
Expectations were riding high for this co-production between Edinburgh International Festival and the Adelaide Festival, “celebrating Australian and Scottish culture”. It started quietly, with poet Hannah Lavery giving a lyrical ode to the many storied city of Edinburgh. Speaking in part through the eyes of her father, she evoked Edinburgh’s layers of history and heritage, its beauty, mystery, and as a place of opportunity.
After calling on us to take Edinburgh on, to build our own stories within it, the soliloquy was over and so were most of the words that would be uttered in the whole show.
What followed was almost like a completely separate production to the wordy intro, one filled with an often jaw-dropping display of acrobatic athleticism and teamwork, although lacking a clear narrative thread.
Filing in through the audience from two separate directions, came the white clad members of the Australian troupe of physical actors. According to the press notes Aussie circus group Gravity & Other Myths and aboriginal dance group Djuki Mala are a 30-strong outfit.
There was so much motion on the stage, with bodies jumping, rolling, writhing, flipping, and flying through the air that counting was the last thing that crossed my mind, but the stage was full of bodies shaping and reshaping.
With the combined force of the National Youth Choir of Scotland providing a constant pulse, and stirring sounds from a group of traditional Scottish folk musicians, it was an ensemble act that one felt privileged to watch.
First as two, then three bodies tall, the acrobats confidently criss-crossed in and out of each other with deceptive ease. In another dramatic sequence, they formed a human hillock with one of the performers climbing up to the top. Performers were catapulted across the stage. Sometimes spinning. To land on the shoulders of another, who was standing on someone else’s shoulders.
At another point, one of the performers hung precariously from an arch of bodies, with only hands gripped around her neck to holder her up.
There seemed such a variety of acrobatic feats that this troupe could perform. And so slickly and without apparent fault.
What exactly the story that the human shapes and dance was telling, and how they link, was open to interpretation. The Celtic-infused soundtrack - with the drawn-out notes on fiddle, the skirl of pipes, and ethereal vocals - initially set a wistful and melancholic tone with the proceedings moving more slowly. The stiff Edinburgh breeze blowing through the plastic stadium seating began to nip.
The music grew more uptempo later with didgeridoo kicking in and becoming at one point a joyful riot. A comedy sequence, which involved one of the players walking on bodies who emit loud groans as they were stepped on, provided a welcome change in tone from the serious business of body-piling.
The physical performance was amazing, of a caliber befitting the opening Festival show, although a stronger overarching storyline to bring together what felt like a series of acrobatic sets would have raised the show to another level. The audience didn’t seem to mind, however, giving a rousing ovation at the end of the show.