Edinburgh 2000 ... Helen gets her Fringe trimmed

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Initially, this year's festival Fringe seemed to have been dominated by solo shows. In the first week alone I saw six, four of which were by and/or about women.

The two that stood out were Madeline Sami's brilliant performance in No. 2 by Toa Fraser, and The Gimmick, Dael Orlandersmith's mesmerising tale of a young girl growing up in Harlem in the 1960s. Both performers created a variety of engaging characters without the help of any props; Orlandersmith's strength is that she is a superb storyteller, while Sami amazed the audience by creating the illusion of an entire family onstage at the same time, transforming herself from one to the other in the blink of an eye to deliver conversations, arguments and intimate dancing.

Thembi Mtshali's A Woman In Waiting and The Bogus Woman, performed by Noma Dumenzi, were both powerful performances that dealt with emotive material, but I found them less moving; perhaps this was because they attempted to gain the audience's sympathy, while the other two performers drew us into their confidence.

Moving on to the ensembles, there were a number of shows that did move me, including Wanted by Israel's Theater Clipa - a shambolic series of beautiful images painting a reality made ridiculous by beaurocracy. Despite technical difficulties (such as unnecessarily bright exit lights that made blackouts impossible) and a narrative thread that completely unravelled during the second half of the show, it created a sense of magical universality.

Another magical show was Umo Ensemble's El Dorado - the story of the Spanish conquest of South America as told by a troupe of medieval buffoons. Entertaining and imaginative, the haunting live percussion gave it an added dimension.

Danzabierta of Cuba presented two contemporary dance shows, of which I saw En Pez en el Asfalto (Fish in Asphalt). Beginning as beggars in the foyer of the theatre, the show combined classically-influenced contemporary dance with breakdancing and spangly cabaret in an energetic celebration. Also from Cuba, but with a different agenda, was Lady Salsa, interspersing the dancing with an over-simplified history of Cuba. But the large company of dancers and musicians were fabulous entertainers, and had half the audience doing the salsa on stage by the end of the show.

Other international dance in my programme included Rosa Mei Dance Company's enchanting Lulu in Lalaland, Aria Spinta by Czech-based group Deja Donne, Jive Junkies from Australia, Moscow's BlackSKY white Theater with Bertrand's Toys and the rivetting Increpacion Daza from Spain.

Bertrand's Toys was a remarkable show - loud relentless music impelled the two dancers forward in their presentation of a series of mechanical toys. The female dancer in particular demonstrated extraordinary abilities with her limbs and an impressive precision of movement. The whole show, with its dim lighting, quantities of dry ice and pounding beat, created a menacing atmosphere.

Both Aria Spinta and Jive Junkies used humourous situations to structure their dance pieces - in Jive Junkies it was a cheesy and overly-long story about having to pull together a show in a couple of days (when the audience just wanted to see them tap); Aria Spinta performed the show where everything went wrong - from cast members arguing to the curtains and lighting literally falling apart towards the end of the show. The actual dancing itself was quirky, humourous and sensuous - and somehow they managed to continue dancing as everything collapsed around them.

I can't go on without mentioning the legendary cabaret provocateur Mika; this year his show was called Tribal Hollywood, and featured more - more autobiography, more opera, more wicked humour, more physicality, more costumes and more kapahaka slipping into his diverse repertoire of songs. He may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if tea's what you're after - well, Mika offers something a little stronger, and he certainly delivers.

At the other end of the genre and geographical spectrum, the Traverse Theatre continued to promote new writing, and this year women were high in number in their programme. Further than the Furtherest Thing was an ambitious work by emerging playwright Zinnie Harris - an engrossing story full of unexpected twists, perhaps a little on the long side and with a disappointing ending as all its secrets had already been revealed.

Sue Glover's Shetland Saga was a less interesting story; novelist Kate Atkinson's first full-length play Abandonment was very much like watching one of her intricate novels come to life, although its final scene sat very oddly with the rest of the story. Splendour, by Abi Morgan, moved further away from the traditional theatre model, the dark tale playing with chronology to reveal each characters' fears.

Also at the Traverse was Alone it Stands by John Breen, a celebration of Munster's 1978 trouncing of the mighty All Blacks. The six performers gave highly charged performances, delivering everything from a baby to a haka to the game itself without a single prop. At times hilarious, and always on its toes, this should go down well in New Zealand - apparently a tour is planned for 2001.

At the assembly Rooms, leading Scottish writer Liz Lochhead's version of Medea employed a chorus of white faced women and black clad men against which Medea glowed in her red dress. Full of passion, Lochhead portrayed Medea as a strong, wronged woman right until the very end when even the faithful chorus resorted to the traditional rejection of the woman who kills her children.

Lots more that I've seen:

  • Poet in New York - another excellent offering from Pig Iron theatre, this time exploring the young poet Federico Garcia Lorca's visit to New York; physical, humourous, beautiful.
  • The Big Hoo Hah - Hungarian clowns struggle to escape from the repressive control of a remote-controlled director/dictator.
  • Circo Para Todods - rescued from the streets of one of the world's most dangerous cities, these young performers display their newfound circus skills with endearing expressions of disbelief.
  • Extra Dry - modern dance to modern sounds - white noise, electrical spluttering, sudden bursts of Vivaldi - all this inspired in the two dancers incredible muscle twitching and flowing synchronised movements.
  • A Little Requiem for Kantor - crammed into a tiny black room, we were shown bandaged bodies, umbrellas, and a beautiful string quartet - a provocative taste of the life and work of Polish theatre director and writer Tadeusz Kantor.
  • Deck Does a Bronco - this poignant tale of lost childhood took us literally to the scene of the crime; energetic, slightly shocking and well staged in the fading light of the playground.
  • Say Nothing - two actors portray a multitude of characters talking at each other, oblivious to the backdrop of violent Northern Ireland playing out around them; we laugh because it's ridiculous, and because the reality is too terrible to comprehend.
  • Dig Sappho - inspired by the works of the Classical poet Sappho, this show achieved success with a simple and at times gently humourous combination of graceful dance and spoken word.
  • One (the Other) - dance/physical theatre exploring the experience of young foreigners in London; a brave work that didn't quite manage to pull off everything it was reaching for.
  • Loveplay - some great character work and humour in this two-hander about relationships and families, with nice layers of meaning.
  • Boom Chicago is Watching - slick interactive comedy.
  • Clare Summerskill - dubbed "the lesbian Victoria Wood", Summerskill is very good at what she does, but could look beyond relationships and neuroses for her source material.
  • Sister Wonderwoman - rather disappointing story of Wonderwoman's spineless little sister. At the film festival, I've managed to catch Harry Sinclair's quirky new film The Price of Milk and from Argentina Rio Escondido, which I saw in Uruguay without English subtitles - it makes much more sense now, and the scenery was just as breathtaking the second time round.

Barbaric Comedies has been one of the controversies of this year's International Festival of the Arts - the reviews generally painted it as deadly and boring; I was pleasantly surprised. It's a play (or rather, several plays) of atmosphere and passion, so anyone trying to closely follow the narrative would find it frustrating. It also needs to be seen in its historical and political context - the bullying males and irritating female characters are hardly appealing to us today. Despite being engaging most of the time, I still felt that after the first half (which was over two hours long), I'd experienced enough of this production.

Strangely enough, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo has been one of my highlights this year. Featuring the kapahaka group Ngati Rangiwewehi (as well as the Wellington, West Coast and Taranaki Regiment amongst the massed pipes and drums), it was a truly unique event. Although the cynic in me couldn't help but question the politics of some of the other Commonwealth performances, the overwhelming mood was one of celebration and cultural pride.

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