When French street theatre fabulists Transe Express go wandering along Princes Street as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay this year, it’s unlikely they will be missed by the thousands of revellers who will make up their accidental audience at the night’s main street party. Using giant structures, aerial interventions and a mixture of captivating visuals and operatic arias, the company will bring more than thirty years’ experience of making a spectacle of themselves to see out the old year in style. This will form part of the event’s We Love You strand, designed to celebrate the importance of Europe’s cultural connections.
“It should be very beautiful,” says Transe Express’s international production manager Nicole Dittmar Ragaigne of the company’s programme for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, produced by the London-based Underbelly company. “We know there will be a lot going on in Princes Street, and the only thing we can’t be sure of is how people will respond. We hope they will stop for a little bit and enjoy the interventions, but we will see.”
Transe Express will present a suite of performances with very different elements over the course of the evening. Giant Dolls sees a trio of opera singers placed in oversize structures, singing French arias as they’re paraded through the street. These will be accompanied by Les Tambours, a group of sinister looking drummers dressed as toy soldiers who provide an array of global beats to give the party bounce.
Cranes will be in attendance to lift the drummers up into the night sky for Mobile Homme, in which the performers are dangled from on high like as a child’s mobile would. Transe Express will be accompanied by Edinburgh-based All or Nothing Aerial Dance company, who will end the early part of the evening with a routine choreographed to the opening number by Concert in the Gardens headliners Franz Ferdinand.
All or Nothing’s involvement as part of this two-way artistic traffic forms part of PLACE (Platforms for Creative Excellence), a new three-year initiative backed by the Scottish Government, City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh Festivals. The partnership will invest £400,000 in bringing leading international artists such as Transe Express to Edinburgh, where they can collaborate with home-grown companies such as All or Nothing, founded in 2006 by Jennifer Paterson, and based at the Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith.
“We have two days to work together,” says Ragaigne. “During that time we can each find out about the other company, and learn from each other about how we do this type of work.”
Transe Express are no strangers to Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, having performed there on more than one occasion in the 1990s when its Edinburgh-based founders Unique Events were in charge. This was a period when an array of European street artists were regular visitors to Scotland’s capital. At times it felt like fellow travellers including pyrotechnic magicians Groupe F and inflatable and marionette auteurs Plasticiens Volants were permanent fixtures. Operating separately, such companies produced a series of quietly subversive sleight-of-hand spectacles that put hardcore avant-garde actions into a civic context. Seen en masse, this at times resembled a scaled-up rave which had broken cover from the underground.
As the focus was shifted into promoting a wealth of Scottish artists, such larger-than-life internationalist interventions seemed to fall off the Edinburgh calendar just as the rest of the world was catching up. With Transe Express looming large on Princes Street this year, a refreshed anarchic spirit will see other European companies doing their various things along the way. This will include French peers Compagnie des Quidams leading a procession of white horses, while Spain’s El Carromato will present a set of giant dancing puppets, and Dutch theatre company Close Act will feature a set of performers on stilts.
Having such an array of international talent on our doorstep raises the unavoidable question of Brexit, and how such international exchanges might be affected after whatever deal is put in place by the UK government next March. Fears have already been voiced by the directors of various Edinburgh festivals, and several authors due to appear at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival were refused visas. For Transe Express too, the future looks uncertain.
“It’s too early to tell what might happen,” says Ragaigne. “but I hope it won’t change things a great deal. At the moment everything is really easy for us to go wherever we want to and work, but I have no idea if that will continue.”
Transe Express was founded in 1982 by dancer and choreographer Brigitte Burdin and sculptor Gilles Rhode after travelling with street-art companies Saldingbande and Podingo as well as new circus troupes La Toile Filante and Cirque Bidon. As they developed ideas of what they styled as intervention theatre at a small level working by themselves, their success saw them expand, eventually deciding to take to the air in order that their now large audiences could see them.
The company’s high-profile performances at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville in the south of France caught the world’s eye, and they went on to become the go-to company for large-scale spectaculars. With Edinburgh ahead of the game, Transe Express performed at the opening of the Sydney Festival in 2002 and 2005, the World Ski Championships in Val d’Isere in 2009 and the Santiago a Mil International Theatre Festival in Chile in 2011.
Today, with a rolling company of as many as 150 artists to call on, Transe Express have performed almost eighty bespoke creations in more than fifty countries across five continents. With a repertoire of a dozen permanent shows, the company have remained based in the Rhone Alps region of France, where they also run La Gare a Coulisses, a centre for street arts, containing rehearsal and development space for resident companies and an outdoor theatre for work to be shared. One can only speculate on the value of a similar resource for the likes of All or Nothing.
As if to illustrate the festival circuit that now exists in the UK on a par with the rest of Europe, over the last year, Transe Express have appeared in Norwich and Halifax, and have performed at Galway International Festival in Ireland on two occasions. As for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the love affair looks set to continue.
“Expect something spectacular,” says Ragaigne. “And beautiful.”
Transe Express will appear at the Street Party, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, December 31.
The Herald, December 24th 2018