Features Festivals Published 2 June 2018

Hidden Door Festival 2018

"The scale, despite the ramshackle surroundings, is huge." - Andrew Edwards writes on the joys of Leith's eclectic multi-disciplinary arts festival.
Andrew Edwards

‘Hidden Door’ at Leith Theatre. Photo: Chris Scott

Sitting up in the tier, watching the dance that unfolds below, I can’t help but be totally awestruck by it all. The pictures I’d seen had left me unprepared for the scale, for the details on the ceiling, for the winding corridors and the patches of darkness, the roughed floorboards and exposed brickwork. Behind me a group of figures work their way up the steeps steps, past the rows of empty seats and disappear from view. I linger for a moment, the dance still unfolding but my attention split. Applause and I leave my seat, skipping up the steps and vanishing too. Past bare walls, around a staircase, I follow, noting the arrows that simply – and deliciously – read ‘Art’. Somehow I end up on a roof, alone with the dull Edinburgh sky, listening to the sounds of water. A sculpture, working as if by magic, moves water from sky to wire to pot to roof. It is silent otherwise – except for the low mumblings of distant voices, belonging to a group of figures I’ve still yet to find.

Closed since 1988, the Leith Theatre – and the derelict State Cinema that’s just up the road – are the site for this year’s Hidden Door, a festival of art, poetry, cinema, dance and music. Spread over 10 days the Hidden Door team aim to round off the transformation of this building’s fortunes, which besides hosting last year’s festival is rapidly gaining ground towards a future redevelopment under the stewardship of the Leith Theatre Trust. This year’s festival is marked by a sense of increased ambition. Not only is there an additional venue – a second revamped space – but the line-up, particularly the music, contains internationally-touring artists with huge followings including Sylvan Esso, Young Fathers and C Duncan, as well as numerous late-night DJ sets & events. The scale, despite the ramshackle surroundings, is huge.

Nestled within Hidden Door 2018 is a new programme of dance by both local and international artists – the first time the festival has allocated a particular strand of programming to this art form. The majority of the work is split across two nights described as ‘showcases’. The description feels apt – on the night I attend the works presented all seem to be similarly engaged with the spectacular, works that are made to grab your attention and hold it. The four pieces of work I saw were highly visual, either with very complex lighting designs, loud musical scores, intricate projections or a combination of all three. Each piece lasts between 20-30 minutes, ranging from finished pieces to work-in-progresses and extracts of large pieces. As a result the night as a whole felt a little start / stop to me, with each work announcing itself to the audience before disappearing a little too early, before – for the most part – a level of complexity was reached that went beyond the spectacle that was immediately presented, which admittedly was often incredible, jaw-dropping even.

Korean choreographer Jung In Lee’s Skins opened the night, performing a solo-piece drawn from experiences of bodily reactions to the subway rush hour. Coupled with a mesmeric lighting design the work shifts between these conditions of crush, panic, stress – moving in a way that will surely carry a deep resonance for anyone who regularly inhabits an urban space – and particularly an urban form of transport. Hurried, jagged, she danced an angular dance that worked through the different subconscious skins of inhabiting an urban space – dancing at the edges of our nervous system, picking up and holding onto that daily grind that isn’t noticeable but wears you down.

As a series of images Skins has a strong impact. Large columns of light catch the artist, isolating her on the vastness of the stage. Jung In Lee appears like a dot, caught in some much larger apparatus. When the work progresses forward the lights and movements soften, exposing different endings, performing a slower, smoother, more intimate relationship to the body. There is a trend within pieces of work about urban experience that they often have a similar arc – there is a supressed condition of anxiety or stress that bubbles to the surface which triggers panic before a new form of calm is reached, a new normal. This sense of progress but not progress, a desire to reach some sort of calm within un-calm surroundings, was brought to mind – of a skin that opens, then sheds and regrows.

Skins contains a degree of depth to it, allowing an audience member to get inside it and figure out what it might mean. There’s an openness to it that is much needed and in some of the other pieces is somewhat lacking. All or Nothing’s Windows is presented as a work-in-progress and while there is so much to admire in the company’s extraordinary aerial dance, there is still a sense that the story is yet to be found or made fully communicable to an audience. Performing on the back wall of the theatre, suspended above the stage, they perform incredible feats of movement but the narrative, a series of snapshots into the windows of women living in a tenement block, seemed overly reliant on the music that accompanied the piece. The work is of course still in development but the decision to programme this work to end the night perhaps undercut the evening as a whole, ending on a unfinished note rather than the spectacular, sensational one the night was looking for.

Motion&Motion, created by Collettivo XL, is another visually striking piece of work but one that is more complete and emotionally affecting. The audience space of the main theatre is cleared out and audience are instructed to take their feet on the stage. A white floor mat is rolled out into the now empty space and two performers enter. Above them is a projector. The two dancers perform a duet above a projected floor of different geometrics, different shapes and patterns. Their relationship to each other and to the earth on which they stand changes, sometimes movement produce floor patterns and sometimes floor patterns produce movements and sometimes they dance together and sometimes they dance alone. The minutiae of human relationships – particularly the romantic – are a pretty well-trodden patch of ground but Motion&Motion is rich enough to be interesting, engaging and beautiful.

The placement of Collettivo XL’s work has the added effect of totally reorganising the space and in doing so redistributes its audience to unknown parts of the building. It is from here that I then find myself far above the stage and after their work ends heading further upward top explore the building around me. The experience of being left to wander, to discover, is breathtakingly liberating. This is one of the joys that this incarnation of Hidden Door offers, both within the State Cinema and Leith Theatre, an opportunity to see the unseen on your own terms. Guided tours of the building are available too – including those with BSL interpretation and audio description – and it is a very genuine pleasure that this spirit of Hidden Doorremains as the scale has grown. Likewise the efforts that have been made to render the space accessible on what is presumably a fairly limited budget, with ramps installed into the main spaces. The team behind Hidden Door have gone to great lengths to make people feel welcome.

The installation I find on the building’s roof is a piece of work by Calum Scott entitled Scare The Deer / Shishi-Odoshi, a sound sculpture that uses traditional examples of ‘sonic engineering’ – namely the Japanese Suikinkutsu (water koto cave) as a departure point for exploring the acoustic potential of water as a sculptural material. Having assembled sentence from the note that accompanied the work, I’m not entirely sure what that even means, or how the combination of mechanisms – which appear to me as magic wooden arms – functions. It produces this incredible sound though – and if you’re anywhere near Leith I’d advise that you head straight up to the roof space of Leith Theatre to find it. It won’t be there next week – and the doors to the building will be presumably be closed too. While not always perfect there is something so tantalising about the temporary, the soon to be gone. Catch it while you can.

Hidden Door runs until June 3rd, with a programme split across Leith Theatre and the State Cinema. For a full line up of art poetry, cinema, dance and music see www.hiddendoorblog.org.

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Andrew Edwards is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine