There's one thing I dearly wish I'd known before going into Pibroch Tales: you are supposed to find it funny. I guess the opening is clue enough, with its sense of solemn ritual marred by noisy clattering and clumsy moves. But I think I was entitled to be confused: the flyer promises "a vibrant blend of storytelling, dance, comedy and bagpipe music", and what I actually got was something approaching a pastiche of high art.
Pibroch is a particular form of pipe music, distinguished by lengthy compositions and elaborate variations. The melodies are ancient, and go by names that are sometimes evocative and sometimes slightly comic ("Lament for the Little Supper", anyone?) Performer Gordon Raeburn has used these titles as jumping-off points, inventing stories to fit them… and then telling those stories through the medium of contemporary dance.
Dance isn't my area of expertise, but the quality of the work is plain to see. Raeburn can shape his body into spider-like forms, with sudden bursts of activity punctuating slower, more graceful sequences. Sometimes he's engaged in physical storytelling – purposefully naïve in its transparency – but at other times, the fact his dance is incomprehensible seems to form part of the joke. And between the dances, he addresses us in a hesitant, reserved persona, offering to "bash through the main points of the story" in a way which actually makes them even harder to understand.
I think I see what's going on here. The respect for the pibroch is genuine, but the stories and dances are obvious parodies; if you successfully connect to this style of humour, you'll benefit from an accessible introduction to a centuries-old musical form. I've lived in Scotland for 20 years, so I know that we can be too serious about our national culture, and there's a particular form of po-faced reverence which deserves to be challenged or even lampooned.
But for me, Pibroch Tales sat in a difficult middle ground – too serious and inscrutable to feel comfortable laughing at, but too intentionally-bad to appreciate as the skilful work it clearly is. I needed something more to hang onto: perhaps a more vibrant character for the storyteller, or some more obvious slapstick to lighten the mood and give us all implicit permission to laugh.
Or perhaps just a little more context would do the trick; now that I've come home and done some bemused Googling, I think I might get more out of the show if I saw it again. As it is, I just didn't "get" Pibroch Tales, and I can't recommend a show I found so hard to understand. But that's not to dispute the quality of the dance, or indeed the merit of the concept – a little more clarity may be all it needs.