It’s been a little over one year since Cloud Dance Festival hosted its last dance platform Hush, but on Friday 22nd July the festival made a welcome return to the Pleasance Theatre with its twelfth showcase Firefly.  Booked for a three night stint, Saturday’s line up was particularly strong, with a wash of new companies and talent joining the milieu.

Exquisite Corpse | Dance Theatre opened the evening with Valholl, an intriguing work that delves in to the Old Norse myth of Valhalla, the afterlife hall of the slain. The piece opens with the striking image of a male dancer, held around the waist by another, his body violently shaking as he takes his last breaths of life. To his left stands an imposing female figure. Dark hair severely scraped back she is a legendary Valkyrie woman, ready to claim the dead warrior as he slumps, a leaden weight to the floor.

Choreographer Anthony Lo-Giudice employs a distinct dance language that is clean and technical, but also affected with gestures of the hands head and torso, that allow his two female dancers to claw and writhe through the space, wonderfully interpreting the Valkyrie as half human half beast type creatures. Powerful and dominant, they are equal to their two male companions, as they throw athletic leaps into the air, which are landed in deep lunges or hurl their bodies at the men, who swing them around their lean frames like rag dolls.

A wash of red light floods the stage, suggesting passion, danger, the blood of war and the male warriors - the Einerjar – competitively wrestle and jostle each other. This is training fit for the great battle of the gods or perhaps just a heated squabble over their Valkyrie lovers. Although a prior knowledge of Norse mythology may help one to follow the drama, as Valholl draws to a close – with an ending that is identical to its opening -  a sense of the ever presence of war within humanity and consequently the inevitable death of the young warrior is keenly felt. 

For James Finnemore’s Patriot, a solo study that probes ‘the routine of the mundane, the pedestrian’ and ‘a dependency on simple repetition that you are compelled to repeat...’ one half expects to witness specific movement motifs, performed endlessly over time much in the style of the great champion of repetition, Pina Bausch. Indeed, brief flashes of this style are alluded to, such as Finnemore circling then dropping his right arm deliberately several times and the repetition of gorgeous phrases of movement, which twist and fold his bones softly and smoothly to the floor.

However, this young choreographer mostly finds his own approach and definition to the concept of repetition, seeming to follow an idea of being locked into a physical routine, a continuous rhythmical existence, where one is stubbornly fixed and unwilling to surrender. Performing to a constant droll beat composed by Joel Harries, Finnemore adopts a movement vocabulary that is infectious, hypnotic and easily recognisable as stemming from Finnemore’s work with the Hofesh Shechter Company. It’s a style that requires its performer to be fluid, agile and sensitive to the articulation of his muscles, which Finnemore achieves with mesmerising ease. In fact, as we watch him selfishly comfortable in his routine, lost in the cadence and timing of the music, it is splendid to see this lone dancer evoke a powerful sense of the tribal, of the pack, so often effectively demonstrated by Shechter with a stage full of performers.

Traditionally many believe that there is a strong connection to a woman’s monthly cycle and the moon. As the pull of the moon affects the water’s of the world, the waters within a woman’s body are also affected by the motion. Her monthly cycle is therefore an opportunity to rid herself of old habits and thoughts and to embrace the new. However, if she chooses to continue with her old routine, ignoring her chance for mindfulness and change, she will become irritable and upset. The ‘craziness’ sets in. This theme is explored by choreographer Jenni Wren in Slanjayvah Danza’s Lunar-tic. A seductress in a red dress, Wren lights the stage with a single white spot light for the moon, then compelled by its powerful cyclical force, proceeds to head bang, spasm, shake and periodically freak out within the marked circular domain.

Even when she steps out of the circle to enjoy a spell of calm, soon the upbeat pulsating soundtrack erupts again and with a flick of her hips and a thrust of her pelvis, she is thrown back into the light, powerless to resist the moon’s alluring and controlling influence. An air of foreboding exudes from the dance, as a constant ticking looms in the background. Is this ticking the passing of her biological clock? Suddenly Wren grabs her throat, suffocated by the lack of control over her situation or maybe this lunar-tic, pushed to the edge of craziness just wants this dance to end. And so promptly it does, with Wren creeping out the circle with reverse long strides, as soundlessly as she crept in.

Following on from one dance work concerned with female issues to another, ex-Phoenix Dance Company member Gerrard Martin brought to the stage D-Illusion, a provocative, intelligent and contemporary work which addresses the perceptions of body image. All is told cleverly through the eyes of a young woman and the love hate relationship she suffers with her image in the mirror. The lights go up and a female dancer stands in her bra and pants. Feeling exposed she hastily covers her nakedness with her arms, as if ashamed the morning after. At her feet, securely holding her legs is ‘the nemesis’ – her mirror image, who like her greedy gay lover pulls her back towards the floor, determined to be in control. So ensues a contest of wills between the two women, who dance Martin’s fresh inventive choreography amidst an aural track that include cheesy media sound bites, which speaks promises ‘of the new improved you!’.

A mature and convincing portrayal is achieved by Portuguese dancer Vanessa Abreu, who, plagued with insecurities, struggles to find herself worth, strength and identity against her psychological foe. In contrast, sporting a short blonde bob and underwear, British dancer Claire Talbot performs her role as the nemesis with absolute relish. Brazen and unapologetic, she bravely and confidently flaunts her sexuality about the stage, whilst manipulating and intimidating the weaker, more vulnerable Abreu.

Humorous and dark, honest and relatable, Gerrard Martin has produced a work tackling the perceptions of body image, which itself is perceptive and insightful of the many factors involved in an issue that is relevant and pressing.

‘A lone female in her search for resolve, in the wake of an expected and harrowing experience, beyond her control.’ This summary is the premise for Taste Water Again, a physical, dynamic, pacey venture by James Cousins Dance, arguably one of the strongest works of the night. Five dancers dressed in muted earthy tones stand centre stage, looking forward into the distance. A flickering light and the sound of rain fall – a literal water shed. Cleansing with the power to revive and rejuvenate, water is the promise of hope to a sixth dancer, a female soloist in white, who initiates a series of movements that express the hardships she has endured.

However, whether seeking comfort from a fellow dancer who rejects her, caught in the storm of the group or briefly standing apart from their onslaught, it seems the soloist fails to find the respite that she seeks; the taste of water and its effects are elusive to her as she disappears and retreats backwards into the shadows.

With beautifully woven intricate group sections and seamless tension fuelled duets by Cousins, the company eat up the stage with a gusto and energy that is relentless and uncompromising. A current member of Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, James Cousins is an aspiring young choreographer who has found a style and voice that is definitely his own.

With a wealth of dance and choreographic practice, working on material from William Forsythe to Hofesh Shechter, leading Scottish choreographer Ross Cooper was one of the most experienced performers of the night. His piece, This Is Winter, even commenced with an impromptu text reading of Vivaldi’s Winter Sonnet by Matthew Hawkins in red tartan trousers. So onwards, with the aid of their strong technical training, Cooper and his collaborator Aikaterina Chatzaki merge and saunter about the stage; conjuring playful moments that often mimic the crisp staccato notes of Vivaldi’s stirring Winter Concerto. It’s just a shame that this duo’s energy and commitment to the dance, never quite match the vibrancy of this powerful score.

Cooper, bare-chested and muscular - looking oddly more attired for a dance about summer – looks stiff and limited in the torso. He never really allows himself to relax and enjoy a sense of freedom and fluidity that would enable him to finish certain movements to their extremities. Whilst Chatzaki, a beautiful long, leaned flexible doll, seems indifferent and lacking in a certain gravitas that would add edginess to her execution of the movement. In fact the performance almost reads as a rehearsal, rather than a work where the performers are present and truly living the dance.

Closing the show with a work that in contrast brought some light relief to the evenings more serious offerings was Firefly’s festival headliner Kristen McNally. A soloist for the Royal Ballet, McNally presented Don’t Hate The Player, Hate The Game, a quirky animated solo, reworked for the BBC’s ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ finalist and ZooNation's star Tommy Franzén. Although originally based on McNally’s interest in the Stanford prison experiment, it’s not this narrative that ultimately shines through during the dance, but Franzén himself, with an absorbing and charismatic performance.

Whether a debonair hero, cowboy or enthusiastic Elvis impersonator, Franzén struts, body pops, leaps and windmills his way through the material, gloriously imitating the melo-dramatic intro to Michael Bubles’ ‘Cry Me A River’ and then a beaty, up-tempo electronic track. A fusion of Street Dance, Contemporary and Balletic styles, McNally’s witty, cutting edge choreography sits well on Franzen, effectively showcasing his talent for versatility and musicality. If there’s one criticism for McNally it’s that this enjoyable escapade seems to end too soon.

Reviewed by Michelle Harris for Cloud Dance Festival