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Dancing the Road to Edinburgh and Back

Scotland quietly boasts some of the world’s most captivating landscapes with its shimmering lochs, vivid green dunes and winding roads that beguile travellers with tales of antiquity around every bend. But there is more to this land than its history and verdant scenery. In fact, for those who are passionate about the arts there is a special cluster of jewels in the Scottish crown that blaze brighter than any other – and the queenly capital knows only too well it’s magnetism.

The Edinburgh Fringe in particular has been a beacon for artists across the globe for almost seventy years and epitomizes opportunities for those involved in all forms of artistic expression. But amidst the raucous carnival-esque atmosphere with its endless rain of flyers that litter the cobbled stones of the Olde Town and street performers vying against each other for potential audiences in the same spot where the Iron Maiden severed heads from bodies; there also echoes a note of caution. It’s easy to get lost in the headiness of it all – no matter who you are the festivals and particularly the Fringe (as it is colloquially known) are not for the faint-hearted.

In 2015 there were 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues. Staged across the city and its tributaries the deluge of people, performances and pressures in a tiny space are nothing short of mind boggling.

Sasha Copland, Artistic Director of Java Dance Company couldn’t agree more. The experience, she says, recalling their 2014 tour “was a medley of all things amazing and scary, revealing and high-risk, exciting and mad – and to top it all a lot of work!” But taking the tremendously successful physical dance comedy Back of a Bus on tour to Edinburgh was a strategic move. A number of factors including extensive research into the UK arts sector, fourteen seasons (including a stint at the Adelaide Fringe) and a long term decision to expand into the market all contributed to the decision-making process.

“There are incredible shows in Edinburgh that still have trouble selling tickets,” says Copland, “It’s hard to be heard over all the noise so it was a delightful surprise for us to actually sell-out in advance.”

“I would definitely recommend taking a show first to Australia,” she adds, “The Adelaide Fringe is a real test and helps you to understand the market and whether Edinburgh is a good plan, it also isn’t as expensive so the risk is not as high.”

In fact, testing the market before taking a show to Edinburgh is almost always guaranteed to offer better results. But that alone is not guaranteed to make it all smooth sailing.

Locally renowned choreographer MaryJane O’Reilly’s neo-burlesque show In Flagrante is a well- known favourite in New Zealand. Over the years her work has gathered a faithful audience but when taking her show over to Edinburgh in 2013 the co-founder of Limbs Dance Company recalls that it wasn’t just content that counted when it came to competing for audiences.

“The group performing before us were a popular comedy act and they were always running late,” she laughs, “Our 10.30pm slot was good but it was always a rush to bump-in and bump out because the next act would be waiting.”

Epitomizing the erotic and risqué, O’Reilly’s work taps into a niche market of cabaret and burlesque and its uniqueness certainly contributed to its success; nonetheless with over 3000 performances (and a majority of them solo acts and comedy) the ideal of selling out is not one easily achieved.

However, as O’Reilly soon found out actually getting to Edinburgh (through mortgaging the house) was not nearly as difficult as organizing appropriate marketing and publicity. “One of the bigger challenges we had was getting all our flyers out,” she says, remembering the undistributed stacks left in their apartment, “We had trouble getting a designated publicist and that in a very competitive market that person is utterly crucial to your success – but our audience numbers were between 50 to 120 and we were delighted with the fabulous reviews.”

Logistical mayhem aside (often attributed to a lack of informed research, financial knowledge and an absence of savvy producers) there are other factors that continue to attract New Zealanders across the seas. For many years Edinburgh, considered far superior in scale and kudos to the Australian market, was often seen a rite of passage. Numerous artists have considered it a tick-box that gave recognised validation to industry peers and ascribed a sense of ‘having made it’ to those who came back with the praise of the UK reviewers.

However, that sentiment is slowly, but almost certainly, changing. There is a growing sense that while the Fringe has often been seen as synonymous with emerging artists, increasingly many practitioners are taking their time before they head over for the Fringe. Founder of Black Grace Neil Ieremia  had never been to Edinburgh before 2014and is very supportive of the notion that individual artists and companies need to make this decision without the pressure of what other artists have or have not done.

“I must admit I’ve resisted the urge for many years,” says Ieremia, “Lots of close friends and colleagues have wanted me to come but I hadn’t seen the point to be honest – but then again I like doing things in my own time.”

Celebrating a retrospective of 20 years that saw shows sell out and receive standing ovations Ieremia is quick to point out that success didn’t happen without collective ensemble effort. “Choosing to come to the Fringe was actually an opportunity for them [the company] to learn their craft, have some professional development, get a chance to flyer and advertise their work, really hustle – but also get back to their roots of why we do what we do.”

Similarly, a collective effort was also put in by the team that brought us the K’Rd Strip. 2015 was the first year Okareka Dance Company presented their own work in Edinburgh yet for both Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete this was a return trip having performed previously in the capital in 1997 with Mika, the latter a veteran with a long history of performing in Edinburgh with his own distinctive brand of cabaret.

“Showcasing Maori culture from a queer angle with non-traditional themes was an opportunity that allowed for the whole cast of K’Rd Strip to get in there and embrace the opportunity to share our story with everyone,” says Mete.

Shows get taken on tour but stories travel. More often than not shows are changed, truncated even and not always to their advantage. Context and connecting with the community is essential but equally retaining the spirit of the work that is its own distinct mark of authenticity – it was a challenge that the Okareka team were fully prepared to embrace.

“Our priority was to take the show abroad and test what it would look like out of a New Zealand context,” says Mete, “It was very well received but as everyone learns quickly marketing is crucial in Edinburgh.”

While handing out flyers may sound laborious the eye-catching costumes of the cast of K’Rd Strip certainly made a difference. Not only did they strut down the Royal Mile but also performed in clubs and variety shows to get the word out.

“No one knew us apart from friends or acquaintances but it was important for us to connect with festival directors and be present on the world stage,” says Mete, “It’s the old thing of having to receive good reviews overseas to make New Zealanders appreciate who we are as a company. Audiences were amazed how we intertwined haka, song, dance, drag and Kiwi music into our story and reaching and connecting on the world stage is important for us as we continue to take our work internationally.”

Reflecting back on Edinburgh (and my own experience of utter and complete immersion as a stage critic and arts journalist during the 2014 Festival) it is increasingly evident that as a community of dance creatives we have a compelling history of making and taking work overseas. Edinburgh is a beast, one that yawns and stretches with potential but it is equally, if not adamantly, expectant of nothing less than an unwavering commitment and top notch quality.

Lemi Ponifasio whose work was shown in the Edinburgh International Festival (curated by Artistic Director Jonathan Mills in 2014) explains the value of holding ourselves as artists accountable to that vision. “We must make work for those who do not love what we make, it’s part of our existence,” he explains, “It’s not about power [but] about us determining how to exist with each other without exercising violence. The world is beautiful, it is our culture that we need to reform.”

Ultimately, it’s not about simply taking our work to a festival to get a few rave reviews. The real reason we make work (no matter where it goes) is to create intimacy with our audiences and our communities, and in doing so, we can be part of a much bigger social and cultural transformation.

Let’s dance back to that.

Please note Dione’s conversation with Lemi Ponifasio took place in Edinburgh in 2014 and was first published in The Big Idea https://www.thebigidea.nz/news/interviews/2014/sep/146129-musings-with-lemi-ponifasio