Created for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru, the Welsh-language national theatre of Wales, and presented as part of the Edinburgh Fringe’s Welsh dance strand, this show is a fascinating conflation of Native American spiritual practice and insurrectionist Welsh history. Choreographed by Sarah Williams, who co-directed the 50-minute production with Eddie Ladd, it’s a striking and memorable – if ultimately, perhaps not completely satisfying – cross between dance-theatre and performance installation. Featuring a fair amount of Welsh text, the performance has the aura of both a ritual and a staged happening. It’s also set up very caringly for those who neither speak nor understand the language: you can either download an app or, before entering the auditorium, borrow a mobile phone in order to hear and/or read the words spoken in the show.
As we find our seats three women – Angharad Price Jones, Anna ap Robert and Ladd – are perched atop a stack of white, light Styrofoam mats downstage left. Stationed at an upstage sound table is W H Hughes, an electronic musician who goes by the name of his artistic output (Y Pencadlys, which translates as The Headquarters) and whose evocative, percussion-driven soundtrack is integral to the show’s success; he’s a live wire, and so is his music. Accompanied by the hum of a church organ, the trio soon gets down to the business of laying a stage for themselves out of the mats. The latter are large rectangles that fall into place with an almost angelic grace. The cords of the microphones used by the cast help conjure in our imaginations rivers in north Wales and North America.
The reason for the dual locations soon becomes apparent. The show’s title is a reference to the ‘ghost dance’ practiced by Native American tribes in the late 19th century, a phenomenon expressing both the realisation that European expansion was destroying their culture and the belief that at some later time, beyond the present on earth, it would nevertheless be restored. Running parallel to this is an act of protest that occurred on a snowy night on February 9th, 1963 when three young Welshmen planted a bomb at the site of a reservoir built to provide water for the city of Liverpool. This feat was only achieved, however, by levelling the village of Capel Celyn, moving its residents out and flooding the valley in which they lived.
Dwans Ysbrydion / Ghost Dance is edgy, inventive and committed. Its makers harbour commendably political ambitions about commemorating and giving a voice to colonised cultures. As a performance it may at times be a tad dry, but it’s never dull. And without meaning to slight the other two women onstage, my interest is always piqued by the participation of Eddie Ladd – delicate in build but a subtly tough, dynamic presence. (She and Gwyn Emberton gave hauntedly kinetic performances as Dylan Thomas and his wife in Caitlin, a collaboration with the choreographer Deborah Light that was also part of this year’s Welsh dance on the Fringe.) She and her fellow cast members prowl or lay about the stage embodying either the bombers or the Native Americans, their every step denting the mats. The damage increases as the material crumbles and is, eventually, violently broken and piled up as a representation of a radically, irrevocably shifting world. At the climax – and we’ve been waiting for this – the handful of large fans positioned stage right are turned on and kind of blow chunks of Styrofoam about. Meanwhile the women jiggle and jerk, their gyrations meant to convey destruction and transcendence. I get it, but somehow it isn’t quite enough. It left a taste of anti-climax on my tongue for a work that had all along been so appetite-whetting. I’m still glad it exists because it’s emphatically not negligible.