WHEN Christopher Hampson was weighing up programming choices for Scottish Ballet’s return to the Edinburgh International Festival, he had very clear objectives in mind. Showing off the world-class character of a company he’s proud to lead as artistic director was, of course, a priority. Sourcing work that had fresh bite and vision was another – no re-treads of cosy classic bon bons were on Hampson’s cards.

“Scottish Ballet has had a great track record of innovation at the Festival,” he says, referencing the bold 2013 showcase of short works, performed at unflinchingly close quarters to packed audiences - that well deserved its umbrella title of Dance Odysseys. “This year, we’re on the main stage of the Festival Theatre, but I really wanted to keep that energy and challenge in our programme – partly because I think that’s exciting for our audiences, but also because I think it’s what keeps our dancers growing, and what keeps our company going forward.”

He settled on two very different, but equally radical, works: Emergence, by Crystal Pite and MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon Corps) by Angelin Preljocaj He adds that, when he joined the company in 2012, he had a very definite "to do" list and Crystal Pite’s name was on it as a modern classical choreographer he was keen to see working with Scottish Ballet’s dancers. “Actually it was Hope (Muir), a member of our ballet staff, who suggested Crystal – she already knew Crystal’s work, and felt it would suit our company.

“I’m really glad we started talking with Crystal soon after – she’s rapidly become a very hot property on both sides of the Atlantic and we’re privileged to be the only UK company staging Emergence. It is a bit of a repertoire coup for us.”

Muir’s enthusiastic recommendation was rooted in personal experiences of working with fellow Canadian, Pite. Of seeing how a piece like Emergence – with its underlying structures inspired by bees swarming or birds flocking – offered a ballet company more than just steps to get to grips with.

“It’s about hierarchies, about teamwork, about communication – about curiosity, as well,” says Muir. “Things that you really need to have in place for a company to function well not just on-stage, but in the rehearsal studio. And I think, even if it’s been a long wait, having Emergence come to us now is good and useful timing. We’ve got a lot of new dancers in the company this season. Several people have had promotions, with new status and new expectations, and that has its own effect. You’re with a company that you know, but you’re having to find out where you fit in the structure again. So to come back after the holidays, start in on a work that involves every single person is just an ideal way of getting to know the new people and for them – and those who were promoted – to establish themselves within the 'hive’ as it were.”

Muir laughs, because even if Emergence isn’t some kind of Disney-fied Dance of the Bees, it has cunning parallels of how hives – and ballet companies – organise themselves. “It’s about tasks and responsibilities,” says Muir. “About how even little interactions build into something that is dynamic, powerful and really beautiful.” She says this with a smile of recollected pleasure, because when Pite created the work on the National Ballet of Canada (NBC) in 2009, Muir was in the studio working with her. In 2013, when Pacific Northwest Ballet re-staged it – and, like NBC, revelled in rapturous reactions from audiences and critics – Muir was again on the scene, guiding the Seattle dancers into the complexities that fill the stage with vivid imagery and exquisite dance.

Her close understanding of Pite’s intentions are now in action with Scottish Ballet. Muir is especially relishing the process because “Crystal entrusted me with the casting – which is totally unknown – but I’ve done it in a way that she can make different choices when she gets here, just before Edinburgh.

"The important thing is to have everyone knowing the essential phrases, and being able to count them.” That counting is not as straightforward as you might think. Different groups can order the moves in whatever way they, and their "dance captain" decide – only, as Muir says, they can’t go changing their minds at a later date. Moreover each sequence has to add up to 48 beats. “When we did it at NBC,” says Muir “there were such marvellous, unexpected, moments of sudden synchronicity – like when you look up at the sky, and see a flock of birds suddenly come into formation. Emergence can spring those kinds of surprises.” Also surprising, and just as fiercely demanding on the dancers, is Pite’s movement vocabulary that Muir says has images that hint at insect species not being “built in the same way we are, as humans."

"A nose could be on the back of a head, you could be smelling with your feet or your elbows. It’s all about a different way of mapping what lies around you – and Crystal has used that to give a really remarkable way of moving. Not always human, but still compelling and beautiful. Emergence is a piece I’ve always loved, and for it to be the last thing I work on with Scottish Ballet is very special, very important to me.” Come the autumn, Muir is migrating – leaving her post as assistant artistic director at Scottish to head up Charlotte Ballet in North Carolina as artistic director. Perhaps Emergence will prove a bonding exercise there too.

Bonding is, according to Constant Vigier and Thomas Kendall – two of the chosen twelve in the men-only MC 14/22 piece – as much an essential to making the choreography work as mastering the moves. Preljocaj’s starting point was the chapter and verse in St Mark’s gospel where Christ breaks bread and says “Take it; this is my body.” The giving and taking of close physical contact – often with a sensual or a brutal edge – has meant the dancers entering a “no holds barred” arena of intense touching.

“What’s really important,” says Kendall, “is that you don’t try to act it, or be theatrical. You have be yourself and push through the usual boundaries, maybe the masks you can pretend behind in a lot of classical ballet. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge of all.”

The two men setting and rehearsing the work at Scottish Ballet know – because they’ve danced it themselves –just how demanding it is. Sergio Diaz remembers wanting to stop “Doing the moves over and over, brought so much pain, not just to the body, but to the spirit. At first, you are really too shy for what Angelin is asking. This intimacy – you don’t go there, even with male dancers you know well. But because the work only speaks if you find a provocative mindset, a boldness and a pleasure – even in the pain – you begin to understand why Angelin wants the eroticism and the suffering.”

Diaz, however, is still not sure what drove fellow dancer Craig Dawson beyond limits that even Preljocaj hadn’t intended. There’s a sequence where tape is bound so tightly round a dancer’s body, it means he can’t move. Dawson defied all restraints. “I just kept going,” he says. “I gradually lost the mobility in my arms, my head, my body, even my legs, but I just wouldn’t stop moving. More and more tape was trussing me up. I could hear it, feel it, but I lost track of time... I was determined not to surrender.” In fact, Dawson was still fighting, and moving, after everyone else had stopped. He continued for an hour. Diaz remembers: “We had to make him stop. Even Angelin couldn’t bear it.”

None of the Scottish Ballet dancers will have to endure this sticky bondage for anything like an hour, but one of them – Vigier – will have to sing while vicious, Heimlich-like manouevres cut off his breath and his voice.

"The singing is, for me, like a ritual or a prayer. It’s a belief that the singer can’t, won’t, give up even under a kind of torture. It’s not like anything we’ve ever done before, but afterwards, it feels like you’ve been purified. You are exhausted physically, but more than physically there’s a kind of emptiness, but a good emptiness as if you have given something very intense from inside yourself. And now, you feel cleansed, which I think is how art can make you feel. And I think, for all of us, the Preljocaj choreography has brought us together in a way that we’ll remember always.”

Scottish Ballet give the UK premieres of Emergence and MC14/22 at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from Thursday to Saturday. www.eif.co.uk