Showing @ Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, until Sat 11 Oct @ 19:30 and touring

Errol White and Davina Givan’s Breathe is a spare and murky dance duet. Considering its title, this may startle, especially if the idea of breath should tickle with thoughts of easy rhythms that are cool, meditative or spacious. Perhaps it is the fault of too many glib ‘breath’ expressions – ‘a breath of fresh air’, ‘have a breather’ – that such associations arise. But Breathe, not ‘breath’ is this work’s title. And it’s really a command, or a deliberate action; one the dancers would be hard-pressed to ignore in such a strenuous and guttural performance.

Illuminating proceedings is Fabiana Piccioli’s lighting, which alternates between misty ochre shafts and a frightening other-worldly searchlight flood. As the sound (by Tiago Cerqueira) vacillates between crackling static and strange pulsating drones, the landscape drawn is defiantly foreign. The dance is often earth-bound and sometimes awkward, with Givan returning throughout to ungainly hunched padding steps, her shoulders turned in and her hands placed on thighs to help draw up feet that suck away from the ground.

Intimations of unfamiliar landscapes – inside a body, oceanic depths – are later drawn more literally by some of the soundscapes’ recordings of spoken word. Suddenly, the feel of residing in a bodily landscape is corroded and confounded by the overlay of the real sweat and rasping breath of the dancers, starkly drawing attention in the pockets of ‘silence’.

Much of the duet material consists of gruff and stilting explorations; a series of physical questions that struggles onwards – ‘could we walk like this? can I support you here?’ Occasionally this builds to more eloquent flight, but by the closing the process is uncomfortably close and laboured (the dancers are, by this stage, quite noticeably exhausted).

Setting out to explore trust ‘that remains even in the absence of physical touch’ is tricky. Most fascinating was not the dancers’ relationship when dancing apart, but the sense of them communicating from dramatically separate locations when they were actually touching. This connected disconnect is eerie: the trust described is hard-won, fought for in a process of harsh motion and laboured effort.

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