Over the past decade, Scottish Dance Theatre has become a national treasure. Under the direction of Janet Smith, it commissioned new works from emerging choreographers - including Hofesh Schechter, who has gone on to international acclaim - and through an annual appearance at Zoo Venues during Fringe helped to re-establish dance as a vital strand of Edinburgh's August overload.
The arrival of new artistic director Fleur Darkin has seen the company maintain the pace. Currently touring with two new commissions - and a work for children from Darkin herself - SDT take advantage of having a permanent company in a similar fashion to Scottish Ballet: they can afford an eclectic, broad programme. And the two commissions bring two of dance's more maverick minds to Scotland: Jo Strømgren and Victor Quijada. Their double bill is a sustained assault on notions of dance as dull or elitist, respectively tackling a well-worn subject with wit and irony and thoroughly deconstructing the expectation of what makes an evening's entertainment at the dance.
Strømgren's entry, Winter Again, is perhaps the most obviously
connected to classical modes of dance. It is evocative, performed immaculately and seriously by the company, using a stark set and a lilting classical score to evoke the coldest month. Flitting between the idea of winter as a metaphor for emotional darkness - the spoken interludes hint at all manner of savage antics - Strømgren even finds time for a brief object manipulation of a toy hare, old-fashioned hunting rifles and some awkwardly passionate pas de deux.
"One can do something new (which always means reinventing the wheel since everything has been done before somewhere) by theme and form and style et cetera," he says. "But I find it more interesting to always change my own way of working, as in always looking for new tools to tell a story or what can be associated into a story." Certainly, Winter bares scant relation to his most famous works which landed at the Fringe. While they invented new languages and often enjoyed a broad, physical humour, his choreography for SDT showcases the dancers' technique.
"The rehearsal period coincided with a knee injury of mine, and I thought why not – I’ll sit on a chair this time, and ask the dancers to provide shitloads of material," he recalls. "A refreshing flashback to earlier days for me, and hopefully a good process for them with a lot of personal investment. As for now, Winter Again is definitively a company piece, they have adapted my vision and made it their own."
Winter Again manages to be both emotionally tough and superficially stylish, with an undercurrent of pain and anguish never far from the surface. "But for the record," he insists. "No dancers were harmed in this production."
Victor Quijada, by contrast, comes not with a history of unclassifiable work but from the hip hop scene of Los Angeles. His piece has a great deal of fun playing with the audience - Quijada even insults himself early on, and his sense of humour allows the dancers to appear to be on the very edge of chaos. To even explain the central conceit is to give away the punchline, but when the crew throw down, they strut their stuff supremely.
"The work I make uses a movement vocabulary that is influenced by my past as a young b-boy and hip-hop freestyler, and very heavily informed by the contemporary ballet works I performed during my career," he says of his basic style. "I have developed a distinct style that (in my eyes) allows a dancer to be all things: explosive, acrobatic, sharp, fluid, gentle, introspective, honest." In addition to this, SDT have a great deal of fun as the piece cracks open expectations and slowly collapses in on apparent rivalries and ambitions within the company.
When asked about his style, Quijada is precise, if elusive. "I would probably describe it as a 'post-contemporary ballet-break dance-theatre' style," he replies: a description accurate but only comprehensible in the light of the performance. And while hip-hop dance can often be frustrating because of its insistence on authenticity and spectacle, Second Coming impresses through the way Quijada mocks pretension and arrogance. There is even a playful reveal - coming around half way through the performance - that challenges the choreographer's self-importance.
Both of these commissions are reminders of SDT's recent tradition of engaging with international trends in dance and playing with the audience's expectations. That the company so readily turn their skills to the demands of hip-hop and more classical styles suggest that Darkin's reign will capitalise on the advances made by Janet Smith.
Darkin herself is already presenting her debut choreography for SDT - Innocence - which was made for a younger audience. Pulled from her own back catalogue, it introduces the poetry of William Blake to children aged up to seven. mixing up the romantic mystic's words with the simple nursery rhymes that it sometimes imitates.
If the past decade has seen the two major Scottish dance companies, SDT and Scottish Ballet, develop their international reputation and presence, the appointment and arrival of new artistic directors insists that they are not ready to rest on their laurels. With Scottish Ballet offering an ambitious programme in the Edinburgh International Festival, SDT are competing with this triple offering. Darkin herself is a dynamic and original choreographer - although Innocence might keep the kids happy, she has more serious work for adults and her Disgo, which came to the Traverse a few years ago, is a bold breaking of the fourth wall that mashes up social and stage dance. And this double bill holds the promise of more imaginative work to follow.