Review by Inesa Vėlavičiūtė
A tribute to UNESCO’s International Dance Day and as part of Edinburgh’s Tradfest, the Pomegranates festival premiered in 2022, celebrating traditional dances from around the world and explored their connections to contemporary hip-hop. Curated by the Traditional Dance Forum of Scotland, a varied and inspiring programme was put together for the festival’s second edition this year, opening the festival weekend on 28 April 2023 with a dozen of thrilling dance workshops at St. Leonard’s Dance Studio, the University of Edinburgh. For those unable to attend in person, the livestream access worldwide enabled more happy feet to join in the fun.
Keeping the energy high throughout the day and an appetite for cross-cultural engagement, the participants found themselves in a rhythmic wonderland of 12 vibrant folk dances and melodies spanning almost all continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Wrapped in superb live music by the resident trad musicians Jon Bews (fiddle), Bernie Hewitt (accordion) and Nemo Ganguli (drums), the workshops invited dance practitioners and enthusiasts to embark on a rich movement journey, the unique aspects of which were captured on paper by the charcoal sketch virtuoso Gabriel Schmitz.
Led by over 30 local and international dance artists and choreographers based in Scotland, the event offered an opportunity to learn and appreciate their dances’ diverse cultural backgrounds as well as the historical, geographical and religious contexts they exist in. The introductions also reviewed how these affected the development of each dance and their evolving place within modern societies. After all, just as one would not understand a foreign language simply because it is human speech, one should not expect to understand foreign dance without some “translation”.
The explained and demonstrated basic dance steps and patterns gave the attendees a well-crafted gateway to experiencing each dance’s rhythmic qualities. Playing with the principles of movement, the participants explored many forms of folk dance art, including solo, couple and group routines, drawing parallels between the kinetic language of each, the stories they told and the social interactions they encompassed. The line-up showcased throughout the day included the following:
Old Time dances, Scotland with Pia Walker and Bernie Hewitt (accordion)
Ukrainian folk dance with Oksana Saiapina and Anastasiia Boiko
Romanian folk dance with Colin Mclennan and Bernie Hewitt (accordion)
Pizzica Pizzica dance, Southern Italy with Lara Russo and Michela Furin (also tambourine) of Italian Folk Connections, Edinburgh
Mongolian Chopstick dance with Yifeng Zhu
Romani Gypsy dance, Poland with Sonia Michalewicz (also vocals), Malwina Siwak, Kasia Siwak and Blanka Michalewicz of Romane Cierhenia, Glasgow
Indian Classical Bharatnatyam dance with Oxana Banshikova and Sahana Lakshmi Venkatesh (vocals) of Cosmic Dance, Edinburgh
The Bon dance, Japan with Heather Rikic and Junko Inaba
Yankadi dance, Zambia with Chinyanta Kabaso and Nemo Ganguli (drums)
Costa Rican traditional dance with Marianella Desanti of DansEd, the University of Edinburgh
Hip hop with Congolese roots with Kemono L Riot and Nemo Ganguli (drums)
Maintaining a focus on the interplay and subtleties of the expertly processed movements and the organic synchronicity based on rhythmic stepping, the Rapper Sword dance and dances from Ukraine and Romania dazzled with their technique of the intricate footwork and the breath-taking vigour of the dancer’s body at work. Other energetic dances with stylised footwork and infectious energy included Yankadi dance from Zambia, Romani Gypsy and Costa Rican traditional dances. Explosive, playful and sensual, they delivered a stream of intensely expressive sensations, deepening the body and mind’s ability to tune into micro-moments of wild harmony, the ebb and flow of the movements. Though choreographed, they felt spontaneous at the same time.
The Southern Italian tarantella also appeared to be part-improvised and free from rigidity, allowing imperfection to be part of the dance. Given the freedom of movement to respond to the beat, the participants took part in a healing and euphoric ritual of dancing in and within a circle. A real firecracker of the day, the workshop was complete with tambourine percussion and frenzied clapping.
The partner/couple dancing and partner exchange also featured in the Old Time Scottish, Ukrainian folk and Costa Rican traditional dances. The remarkable preservation of an ancient cultural and spiritual way of life was also revealed in the hypnotic Indian classical dance, delivering cathartic storytelling through movement and its symbolism. The slowly unfolding dramatic narrative spoke to humanity’s intrinsic need to bond with nature and the gods. The mystical beauty of this one-woman dance had a meditative quality to it, with the soothing and exhilarating sounds of the ankle bells and compelling singing enhancing the experience.
Another relatively slow dance with its elegant, dreamlike movements and balletic grace took the participants to the Mongolian steppes. The intriguing dance prop of the four red chopsticks tied together with a flag brought out the detail in the dance figures, so subtle yet so impactful. The workshop leader also encouraged everyone to be creative with how they used and interacted with the space when moving around. The Bon dance, popular within seasonal dance festivals and celebrations in Japan, was also performed unhurriedly, at a steady pace. It got people in sync, moving to the rhythm in perfect unison, sharing joy and bonding through a collective experience.
A perfect day’s finale – blurring the lines between contemporary hip-hop and its Congolese roots, the charismatic hip hop artist-in-residence Kemono L Riot inspired the dancers to enjoy the moment in the flow and fluidity of the dance. His sparkling energy created a communal dance party, thrumming with uplifting vitality and beaming smiles. He also fashioned a unique and visually stunning display of artistic expression by dipping into various dance traditions and fusing them with funky hip-hop rhythms and rhymes from the poet-in-residence Ian McMillan used throughout the promenade performance at the end of the festival. Showcasing an extravaganza of captivating dance steps and colourful costumes, all these phenomenal dancers came together on stage, inviting the audience to appreciate the diversity and beauty of their craft, as well as the friendship, connectivity and togetherness shared throughout the three days. Accompanied by the beats of a guest drummer Nemo Ganguli, the production’s execution was fantastic, creating collaborative magic on stage.
A joyful explosion of folkloric echoes in our contemporary world, the Pomegranates festival demonstrated there’s more to traditional dance forms than meets the eye. The workshops transcended the differences between cultures, embracing the commonalities shared through dance instead – from healing and religious rituals, through theatrical entertainment, to death ceremonies and ancestor worship. Engaging in these dances felt like stepping into tiny time capsules, where each culture’s traditions, passion and personality spread like wildfire, leaving a lasting impression.
Images courtesy of Wangxiu Cheng, Ziqing Yin, Inesa Vėlavičiūtė and Yan Hong
Editorial support by Iliyana Nedkova