Entering Edinburgh’s City Chambers feels like entering a sacred place – just off the Royal Mile tourist trail, its unassuming grey façade stakes claim to some of the most impressive spaces in the city. Climbing the ornate staircase to the Council Chamber is an adventure in and of itself– ascending through nigh-on 300 years of wooden-panelled history and glass cases bursting with treasures.
But even that fails to prepare visitors for entering the focal-point of the building which is, putting it mildly, awe inspiring. The ceiling soars seven meters above us, climaxing in an ornate stained-glass skylight that spirals into hypnotic abstraction. An impressive, imposing fireplace stands firm, as it has for centuries, as a visual background to rows of seating. At the end of the room, huge windows open up over the expanse of the New Town, stretching down to the Firth of Forth and Fife in the distance. Over the hour-long runtime of Brocade, the sun will set over the production, walking us from day into night with natural grace.
Seats are laid out in four rows, two on each side of a gap through which the piece primarily takes place. It’s a magnificent, captivating venue, but also one that feels thematically relevant; one that becomes part of the story itself. The chamber evokes centuries of male-dominated decision making and financial power: a crucible of patriarchal oppression that stands, embellished in precious metal and luxurious wood against the tide of contemporary politics. The Council Chamber becomes a container in which the performers of Brocade – five women – are trapped; symbolic of the literal constraints the world puts upon them. Seeing these dancers occupy this space, transforming it into a visceral, almost violent loom is a triumphant piece of subversion that underpins the entire experience.
Brocade is, firstly and foremostly – before we venture into the murky forest of metaphor – a celebration and exhibition of sheer skill and finesse. Opening with the quintet gracefully stepping up and down on the spot, which transitions to a dancerly jog, and then to a full-blown stampede, it’s an impressive start. But more impressive still is the fact that this continues for minute upon minute – at some point it becomes clear, at least to the majority of the audience, that these athletes exist at a physical level most of us will never reach. And, for the first half of the performance, this remains a defining point of awe.
The dancers hop, jog, and skip with such power and devastating control around the room that we cannot help but sit, agape, at the sheer mastery on display. The sound of shoe hitting floor becomes a majestic, organic form of percussion that conveys an aural sense of pressure we aren’t accustomed to. Gentle movements rebound with rock-hard impacts; whilst the most visceral, motion-blurred manoeuvres barely register on a sonic level. It appears that every single, minute moment in the piece has been calculated to showcase the elegant mastery and sheer strength of the performers: in its quieter moments, we see perfection in normality; in it’s loudest, we witness thrilling shows of skill in lightning-fast choreography that flies by inches from our faces.
But what’s so remarkable about all of this is that it feels completely organic. The piece never feels forced, or even particularly ‘choreographed’. In later sections, the dancers cue minimalist industrial music, play scratchy, undefinable melodies on a violin, or, in a particularly effective moment, layer levels of song over one another to create an intricate patchwork of sound. These moments are so natural – seem so impossible to replicate night after night – that the dancer’s reactions to them, keeping time and reacting to the sound with inquisitive, instinctive movement appears almost supernatural.
As the title would suggest, the movement of Brocade resembles that of thread being sewn on a loom. The idea of creating a beautiful, resplendent garment or tapestry is the perfect encapsulation of the grace and skill of this production, and the intangible feeling that the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. But the idea carries significant political baggage as well. Although the tapestry may be resplendent, the production emphasises the work and toil that go into its creation – the historical oppression that women faced, resigned to ruin their bodies and minds in front of looms for the bulk of their lives. At times, the performers are fighting viciously against the role they have been forced into by society; at others, they’re working harmoniously to create their beautiful work; and, in sum, one gets the sense that they have reclaimed the profession that has been imposed upon them. Here, in the Council Chamber, the dancers stare centuries of oppression straight in the face and say, resoundingly, don’t fuck with us.
Day flows seamlessly into dusk which drifts gently into night. We realise this as the dancers return to the window – gazing longingly at the gaping expanse of freedom right in front of them and yet so far from their reach. Mesmerised by movement – trapped in concentric circles recursively flowing around each other and the audience – we journey into the evening gloam with a mixture of triumphant anarchistic glee and frustrated resignation at their positions in the world.
By the time that the lights dim on Brocade, the sky striking in radiant, glowing royal blue – backlighting the skyline and casting the New Town in shadow – one gets the feeling that time and space have somehow converged and warped to create the moment. There’s no real sense of time passing – no feelings of narrative momentum or inertia to spur us on or hold us back – we exist in a transfixed, timeless state that could have lasted a couple of minutes or several hours. The transition of day to night bookends this – a process that one often thinks of as consisting the backbone of a day, and one we so often forget really takes place over a matter of minutes. It’s a change of fixed states, rather than a continuous transformation – but it takes place, paradoxically, as part of a system in constant flux.
This is the thing I took away from Brocade above all else. There comes a point, from within a system of constant transformation, where there is no going back – where the momentum of change outreaches the pull of history. Perhaps that point is now – with the #MeToo movement and calls for gender equality erupting all over the globe; perhaps it was in 1918; or perhaps it was in the midst of any of the cultural upheavals of the 20th century. Who can truly say when day becomes night?
By now, the tide has certainly change on gender equality, but this production reminds us that this is only the case due to centuries of flux; of passion and activism and rebellion. It is a celebration of the women who risked and gave up their lives to reach this moment, and it reminds us, too, that the struggle isn’t over – that we mustn’t become complacent in our modern victories. Still, Brocade tells us, women are strong – they’ve always been strong. They’ve come through centuries of hardship and oppression, and they’ll fight through more. It is a message of hope – grounded in pain and persecution, sure, but hope nonetheless. It is the hope that one day, women will not be resigned to look out to the world through windows in the palaces of rich men; but will be free to stare into systematic oppression from the comfort of a museum.
Perhaps this show would be more fitting at sunrise – but who would come see it at 4am?