It Needs Horses/Home for Broken Turns[author-post-rating] (3/5 stars)

Acclaimed choreographer duo Lost Dog uphold their reputation for provocative and dynamic work with this delectable double bill of dance theatre pieces, It Needs Horses and Home for Broken Turns.

Elegantly treading the line between overwhelming bleakness and absurdist comic energy, Home for Broken Turns is a sort of day in the life of four feral young women (a distinctly woeful Wild West scenario that recalls the sad tales of American writer Annie Proulx, even though they speak French) on an isolated farmstead where they scratch out their strange and primitive existence. There’s a skeleton lounging on a lawn chair – that’s their mother, puppeteered by the otherwise ostracised innocent Nina (Nina Madelaine). With her white dress and celestial beauty, she’s clearly different to her bold and brawling siblings – they may mock her incessantly, but it’s she who has the sole privilege of piloting Maman’s remains. The chaotic kids kiss the desiccated hand, plead for stories and lullabies, dance for her in a frenzy of joy and distress. Of course, there’s a lot more going on than just dance here, and though the sometimes near-balletic elegance doesn’t sit entirely seamlessly with the dominant air of naturalism, there are moments where dance makes absolute sense in the narrative.

At its best, dance seems like the only plausible expression of the desires that consume these sequestered young women – there’s a motivation for the way they throw themselves around with reckless abandon, entangling each other with something like sensuality. It’s as if they believe, with enough sheer exertion, they can force the dull hours to pass more quickly, or might be able to cure their gnawing, private loneliness by merging into one singular organism.

The physical language is fresh and distinctive, vibrant with a sense of risk – their bodies creating straining chains across the stage and every time one of the siblings dares to show a bit of autonomy, daring to break away from the pack, the others stare at her like she’s sprouted an extra head. Every so often, a bus pulls up and the girls suddenly become poignantly recognisable figures – pleading eyes and outstretched hands for a bus ticket, a little money, petitioning for “une piece, s’il vous plait!” Rich in subtlety, it’s quite a harrowing observation of human loneliness -–one sibling seeking comfort from her mother receives a slap in the face from a bony hand, but, of course, it’s her who deals the blow to herself, with deft, miniature moments of tenderness and violence that do not insist, but rather allow us the freedom to form our own narratives.

With somewhat similar themes of desperation and disconnection, It Needs Horses takes place in a deconstructed wooden circus ring. The vivid colour and vivacity of the big top is all but gone – only a wooden O, and the trembling smiles and shaky legs of the performers remain. There’s more than a little of Forced Entertainment in this disturbing duet as the performers, like circus acts left out in the rain, their glitter gone and grins faded, respond to what seems like overwhelming audience expectation.

The pair perform insistently unspectacular tricks that verge on accidental acts of pure clumsiness, a series of hollow ta-das are met with utter silence. The trapeze artist (Solene Weinachter) inexplicably falls unconscious, but her face-painted partner (Joan Cleville) dictates that the show must go on. What follows is both repulsive and oddly compelling, with Cleville arranging his partner’s limp body into parodic postures of grotesque sexuality. There’s something about his wavering gaze and slumped shoulders that suggest he’s the one who’s being degraded. All in all, it’s accomplished, if not thematically innovative, work, but for all its grim shock value, it somehow lacks any kind of insistence or immediacy, dallying between cartoonish comedy and utterly repellant realism, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry so hover noncommittally between states, holding ourselves back from complete immersion. Though It Needs Horses boasts quite scintillating performances, it may well require a stronger sense of either dance or theatre to really move us to something.

It Needs Horses/Home for Broken Turns is playing at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August.

For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe Website.