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International Co-Lab: the global artistic vision that started at the Edinburgh Fringe

International Co-Lab participants Eilidh MacAskill and Dick Wong. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority International Co-Lab participants Eilidh MacAskill and Dick Wong. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
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Theatremakers from Scotland, New Zealand and Hong Kong met at this year’s fringe in the first part of a three-year collaborative artist residency programme that encourages working with international peers to create new, innovative work. Thom Dibdin finds out more about the initiative

There’s a picture, taken during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, of a group of performance artists, sitting in a circle on the green expanse of Holyrood Park, under Arthur’s Seat near St Anthony’s Chapel. Noticeably absent is an audience, making it a brilliantly incongruous image. Here, during the largest ever edition of the biggest art event in the world, these few have found time away from the constant search for an audience, the flyering and the hectic pace, to share a meal and ideas.

The key point is that they are still a part of the fringe itself. This meeting is happening because of the fringe. It is no accident, but an international meeting of theatremakers, brought together as part of a two-week event instigated by the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority of Hong Kong.

The fortnight in Edinburgh is just the first part of a three-year programme, the International Co-Lab, incorporating practitioners from Scotland, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The nine participants, three from each country, will be reconvening at the Auckland Fringe in March 2018, and then finally in Hong Kong in 2019, when the results of the residency will be presented as part of the opening programme for Freespace at West Kowloon Cultural District.

International Co-Lab participants share a meal in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, near St Anthony’s Chapel. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
International Co-Lab participants share a meal in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, near St Anthony’s Chapel. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

The International Co-Lab is itself a result of the Momentum programme organised by Festivals Edinburgh during the fringe, according to Low Kee Hong, head of theatre at West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

An increasing number of countries are creating showcases for their own performers during the event. It started with Made in Scotland and continues with the likes of Big in Belgium and From Start to Finnish. While these attempt to brand a certain country’s presence at the festival, they still work within the fringe’s economics, focusing on the buying and selling of work.

“We were talking about whether we could create an intervention not just into festivals in Edinburgh but festivals across the world,” Low explains. “Whether we can have a conversation that goes back to the artist and to the artistic process, in dialogue with the festival that is going on. One that will also be set outside the immediacy of the buying and selling of work.”

The creative funding bodies from Scotland and New Zealand quickly joined the scheme, and the search then went to finding curatorial bodies that could deliver such an artist-focused programme.

The choice for a Scottish partner was Forest Fringe, the collaborative event run by Deborah Pearson, Andy Field and Ira Brand that has been creating a fringe on the Edinburgh Fringe for a decade. It has the necessary artist focus and also works with performers who cross the disciplines of theatre, dance and performance.

The choice of artists to take part in the co-lab then had to be worked out carefully, according to Field, who says it needed artists who could find a shared performance language with artists from very different contexts and very different backgrounds. “It is not necessarily about being non-verbal,” he explains, “but [choosing] artists who have a very distinctive approach to making work that transcends the conventions or the traditions of any kind of given context and allowing them to create work that makes sense on their own terms.

“Those are the kind of brilliant artists to bring to an international collaboration like this. Artists who are so open and responsive to the circumstances and context that they will be able to create something new with artists who come from a very different background.”

One of those performers is Glasgow-based Eilidh MacAskill, who makes playful performances for both adults and children, from her year-long solo piece, Eilidh’s Daily Ukulele Ceilidh, to the recent children’s theatre hit The Polar Bears Go Wild.

“One of the things about the time that we spent together was we didn’t quite know what this was,” MacAskill recalls. “It was about us sharing space and time without the need to create anything.”

Participating artists

Abby Chan is a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and was a dancer and guest choreographer with the Hong Kong City Contemporary Dance Company. Founder of Chan-Can-Dance Theatre and co-artistic director of Mcmuimui Dansemble, her choreography has been performed around the world. A multidisciplinary artist, she has collaborated and performed with many theatre companies.

Ata Wong is a director, choreographer, actor and physical theatre director and instructor. He graduated from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts’ School of Dance and later studied at Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris.

Dick Wong is a journalism graduate, who left the publishing industry in the mid-1990s to pursue a career in contemporary dance and theatre. Recent works include 0|2 (2014), a collaboration with Xing Liang.

Julia Croft is a performer and feminist theatremaker based in Auckland. She creates original performance that sits somewhere between theatre, dance and performance art, and investigates the relationship between representation, politics and violence.

Nisha Madhan is artistic director of the Town Centre. Her work ranges from commercial television to performing, producing and directing for contemporary theatre, public installations, writing, dramaturgy and mentorship for emerging artists.

Jason Wright is a composer and sound artist working across dance, theatre, film, sound installation and videography. He collaborates frequently with New Zealand choreographers and theatremakers, and his work has been presented both nationally and internationally.

Sharron Devine trained classically as an actor 20 years ago at East 15 in London. Based in Scotland, she creates immersive one-on-one human specific works and is also an experienced collaborator, crossing creative disciplines from dance to visual and live art.

Nic Green The forms of her performance work are discovered through relational practice with people, place, material or context. Ranging from dance to vocal composition, her work has been seen around the world.

Eilidh MacAskill is a live artist and theatremaker based in Glasgow, who creates playful and unique performances for both adults and children. She is artistic director of Fish and Game.

More important was making personal connections with real people from the different places involved. The resulting collaboration, she says, would not be about creating a single piece of work, but having a more international outlook on talking about the work that is being made and how that could filter through to each of the participants’ own processes.

Low agrees: “When we set up this lab, we were far more interested in creating a space where there is a lot of peer-to-peer dialogue, artistic dialogue, versus the forced intention to make a work or do a production. If that emerges at some point in the process, we can have that conversation specifically, depending on what it is. But the lab is very much an artist-led space.”

Participants in West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s International Co-Lab at the Drawing Room, Edinburgh Palette. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority
Participants in West Kowloon Cultural District Authority’s International Co-Lab at the Drawing Room, Edinburgh Palette. Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Having such a sense of freedom requires artists who can be focused in their outlook, and, for that reason, the whole lab has been aimed at mid-career artists.

Low explains: “The reality for mid-career artists is that a lot of funding schemes and structures mean they are usually not eligible. Also, because we are talking about nine artists from three different countries with very different backgrounds, it also requires a level of maturity in their practice to bring something active to the table.”

The lab also required artists who are both makers and performers. So not directors working on a text or a choreographer choreographing on other bodies.

Low is clear that he wanted artists who could perform – either their own work or with each other. For that reason, it helped that the artists are all working in non-verbal or non-text-based work, whether they come from a dance or a performance background.

The co-lab might be a new idea for the fringe, but it has become a strong part of the practice from West Kowloon.

“For us, a co-lab like this is part and parcel of our creation strategy,” continues Low. “When we talk about making work, we don’t just talk about giving commission money and the artists go away and make work. We are far more interested to look at these artistic dialogues that can inspire new ways of making work and thinking – and also perhaps lay the foundations of future collaborations.

“This kind of lab is not a new thing that we have been doing. Other labs have been [doing it] for things like dance. My colleague has a long-standing relationship with the new dance house in Finland, the dance houses in Australia and New Zealand.”

For fringes around the world, with their increasing size and focus on commercialism, ideas like the International Co-Lab are ways of bringing them back to their role as places of innovation and of nurturing creativity.

Not every fringe will have the green expanse of Holyrood Park to sit on, or an Arthur’s Seat to climb. But Low has chosen participants who will not just find their local equivalent, but will use it to help find new ways for their practice to develop.

edfringe.com; westkowloon.hk; aucklandfringe.co.nz

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