Can you dance with a bag on your head? How about with a partner dragging your body across the space? Or with a constant commentary interrupting and halting your performance?
From the Top by choreographer Victor Fung starts out with two dancers, Kenny Leung and Ronny Wong performing a duet of power imbalance. The hooded performer’s ridged physique is tipped, flipped, dragged and pushed around while the other imposes his will on how, when and where they move as a pair. Soon, they’re interrupted by the staged voice of the choreographer who, through a range of fantastically annoying clichés, offers his view on their performance. He’d like it to be “a little more abstract” or maybe for the performers “to take more risk”. As he rambles, the inner monologue of the silent performers is projected onto the back wall, normally a string of rhetorical questions, swear words and sarcastic rejoinders to the choreographer’s inane comments.
Then, they try it again, and again, and again, each time breaking to hear the choreographer’s input which becomes increasingly obscure, ineffectual and impossible to implement in the performance. Despite focusing on ‘shit choreographers say’, most of what goes on is easily applicable to ‘shit directors say’, ‘shit critics say’ [sorry] and, for all those writers out there, ‘shit bad editors say’. It’s the feedback loop of doom and it’s very, very funny, replicated with a finesse that never turns it into too ridiculous a parody.
The un-funny thing is the way this doofus’s comments gradually erode the artistry and skill of the dancers’ performance. Under his idiocy, they start to sweat, ache, injure themselves, and the fun of dancing – if there was much to begin with – evaporates more and more. The power imbalance depicted in the performance is actually secondary to the power imbalance happening between the insistent, intruding voice and the two dancers whose ability to function is unravelling at speed.
From the Top is not a new work. It premiered in 2015 and has since toured around the globe. However, as Fung states in his programme notes, revisiting the piece for the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe has imbued it with additional significance. At the end of the show, Fung comes on stage and explains how its themes overlap with recent events in Hong Kong calling for independence from China. He says the company have been reflecting heavily on the concept of ‘having a voice’ and unequal power structures. The audience are invited to write notes their own thoughts on the subject on a post-it note that is displayed with many others in the foyer of Dance Base (the post-it has, Fung says, become a symbol of protest and public voice in HK).
What Fung does particularly beautifully is how he acts out his own argument. He doesn’t hammer home the political point he’s making, doesn’t patronise the audience or become didactic. He just stands there, takes a small moment to speak and then invites everyone else to have their say, if they would like to.
From the Top is on at Dance Base until 25th August. More info and tickets here.