bones. When Czech choreographer Lenka Vagnerova came across the South American folk tale about La Loba - a mythic "wolf-woman" who roams the countryside collecting bones and bringing them back to life - something caught her imagination. She was carrying her first child at the time, so you could say that mentally, physically and emotionally, Vagnerova was living in a heightened state of creation. But actually, if you track back across her earlier (and award-winning) choreographies you'll find that birth, death, resurrection, and the mythologies we have always devised to encompass them, are intrinsic to her distinctive artistic vision.
For Vagnerova, the La Loba legend wasn't a cue to get sentimental or anthropomorphic - she's too sharply curious about the true origins of species (including our own) to serve up a Disney-fied old biddy manipulating skeletons into ersatz critters. Instead, she asked her dancer, the unnervingly feral Andrea Opavska, to inhabit a no-man's-land strewn with old straw and scattered with a startling array of skin and bones. Some of the latter very large indeed, and some of them - like a cow skull - complete enough to identify.
"It took us a long time to bring them all together. People did help with the collecting. But we had to go looking for them - out in the country, in roadkill, and also in an actual abattoir. Because these bones had to be real."
Replicas would have had no DNA, no sense of the life once lived, no history to acknowledge or respect. Respect is, in a way, the bone marrow of the two works that Vagnerova is bringing to the Fringe. Along with La Loba, her company will be performing Riders, which was awarded Dance Piece of the Year at the Czech Dance Platform 2013. The inspiration for Riders came from watching birds, and realising that they are watching us.
"They are among us, but because they live high in the sky, or in trees, or on telegraph poles, we don't really notice how our worlds are really side by side," Vagnerova says. "We share the same environment, but that we don't necessarily share the same needs, or have the same vulnerability to change. What can seem a small change to us - like the cutting down of a forest..." There's a pause, a half-shrug and a smile across the Prague cafe table where the remains of breakfast are still being picked over. This conversation, squeezed into Vagnerova's busy schedule as one of the participating artists in the Czech Dance Platform 2014, may reflect her passionate concerns about environmental issues, but she remains first and foremost a dance-maker who is busily establishing her own company at home and abroad.
Fringe-goers may well have seen her, and her choreography, already. Prior to setting up Lenka Vagnerova & Company (in 2012), she was a core member of DOT504 and it was soon after that Prague-based group premiered Vagnerova's Mah Hunt - a thrillingly visceral duet that explored the shifting dynamics of hunters becoming the hunted - that she realised she needed to strike out on her own. She describes that shift in terms of "making productions about more than just dance, more like dance theatre."
"I wanted to work with all kinds of other talents; musicians, visual artists, but also - especially - with actors. Actors with an understanding of, maybe some training in, movement but who could add in that theatrical dimension that was already emerging in Mah Hunt. Really, for my choreographies I don't need only great dancers, but also real personalities."
Both of these qualities are well to the fore in Riders and in La Loba. For Riders, Vagnerova asked Czech film actress Tereza Voriskova to join her dancers, not only in class but on stage. Voriskova's own potent physicality fused superbly with Vagnerova's movement vocabulary and the mix of carefully observed body language (and pecking orders) that the choreographer wove through more fantastical episodes. When it came to hatching out - with the egg a cunningly bundled up, everyday anorak - Voriskova's flair for swift, spot-on characterisation ensured that layers of humour, meaning and symbolism emerged with her.
"It was important to me," says Vagnerova, "that we didn't just mimic birds. As with all animals, we looked deeper into their behaviour, and then we found that, like us, they have to survive, raise their young, find food - and maybe also enjoy the environment more closely than we do because they don't destroy it for commercial gain."
In La Loba, there is only one character, but she's portrayed by two performers: a dancer and a singer (Jana Vebrova) who between them put flesh on the bones of a myth, and use those bones in games and rituals that remind us of the power the dead can exert on our imagination. Even as your mind is associating images of religious relics, shamanistic rites, prophesies made by casting the bones, Vagnerova herself is harking back to nature.
"This old woman is, for me, the mother earth. She takes the bones, just like the ground does when we die, and she 'recycles' them - birth to grave, dust to dust - and then new life comes. So yes, it is a myth - but the bones of this story are the truth of our existence."
Lenka Vagnerova & Company are at Zoo Southside with Riders (August 1 to 10) and La Loba (August 12 to 25).