Heaps of shoes create a rubble-like landscape that covers the entire stage. Dancers in rags pick their way across the debris as the audience enters the auditorium. This is the enigmatic opening to Scottish Ballet’s production of Each Other (Ivgi & Greben) which premiered at the Tramway in Glasgow on Friday.

© Andy Ross
© Andy Ross

In silence, the performers start dancing. They clear circles of space in the piles of shoes and attempt to scale the Tramway stage’s exposed brickwork. Two dancers, each clutching a pile of shoes, slowly approach each other and, as they hug, the shoes fall and music begins. It is an earthy percussive sound, much of which composer Tom Parkinson created by smashing bricks and throwing shoes around.

There is always something new to notice. Dancers pile on top of each other and a male dancer lifts his female partner upside down on his shoulders like a backpack. Meanwhile, a girl quickly clears a pathway through the shoes for a different male dancer, almost completely obscured by all the shoes he is holding.

He finally drops the shoes and contorts as if in pain. The stage fills with the entire cast of seventeen dancers (although it seems like more) and the dancer is grabbed and, despite his struggles, dragged backwards and buried under the shoes. This brutality is chillingly juxtaposed by two childlike female dancers who hold hands and hopscotch, oblivious to the grim sequence playing out beside them.

The dancers thrash the set and cover their eyes in anguish as they pile all the shoes into one long barrier that separates the front of the stage from the back. The transition from seemingly random movements into a rhythmic tribalistic dance is seamless and the tribalism is reinforced by fantastic shadows on the walls created by bright backlighting from the wings. Their imagined differences prove unfounded as on each side of the artificial border the dancers mirror each other’s movements, reminding us that we are not so dissimilar, regardless of the barriers we erect.

© Andy Ross
© Andy Ross

It is a powerful moment when the dancers suddenly stop and stare at each other across the border, as if seeing each other for the first time. They frantically tear the wall apart, invoking memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to create five new walls in the other direction.

The spaces between the new walls of shoes are like catwalk runways. With all the footwear strewn everywhere, uncomfortable messages can be interpreted about waste in the fashion industry – made even starker by the dancers’ ragged clothing and bare feet. Their quick, desperate actions call to mind sweatshops and rubbish tips in impoverished countries.

There is also indication that the spaces might represent racetracks, lined with discarded trainers. The dancers tumble up and down the rows, performing athletic gymnastics, leaps and arabesques and jogging slaloms around one another.

One aspect of the performance where the imagery is starkly clear is the repeated allusions to the Holocaust. From hands covering noses and mouths as if being overcome by gas, to the slumped limp piles of bodies, to the ownerless shoes themselves, the imagery is everywhere. As the shoes are rearranged into piles, the dancers form trios and one of the three is dragged by their arms and legs as their body is used to scoop shoes into piles – invoking theterrible footage of bulldozers piling up corpses in the concentration camps.

Kayla-Maree Tarantolo and Henry Dowden © Andy Ross
Kayla-Maree Tarantolo and Henry Dowden
© Andy Ross
Towards the end, dancers laboriously carry in pairs of red shoes, arranging them in a circle. The shoes seem to glow as their patent red surfaces are hit by red spotlights creating a magically gripping spectacle. This is the first and only bit of vibrant colour in a production that is otherwise mostly grey. It reminds me of the little girl’s iconic red coat in Schindler’s List.

The production ends with an eerie solo performance by Kayla-Maree Tarantolo. While all the dancers push their bodies to the limit with extreme contortions and backbends, Tarantolo takes this even further with flexible crab walks where she watches the audience through her legs. Her face stays fixed towards us while her body moves in all sorts of unnatural directions and weird positions. It is a hypnotically alien display but little quirks like sticking her tongue out at the audience add a sense of fun to the piece giving the audience an entry point into enjoying the unsettling movements.

The image of worn discarded shoes has a visceral impact that Each Other taps into to create a poignant and compelling piece about the tensions between different groups. From the disconnect between rich and poor countries, to the barriers between groups in society, the eerie nature of the unfamiliar and the terrible costs that can come from allowing these divides to strengthen, Each Other is an important piece that is particularly resonant within today’s political landscape.