THE Highland Fling’s relationship with deer is explored in an exhibition the artist says is a “life-crisis ritual for a damaged planet”.

Hanna Tuulikki’s Deer Dancer looks at how deer are imitated in traditional dances and how myths about the creatures have informed hunting practices and the “gender performance of hetero-masculinity”.

The Highland Fling is one of three traditional deer dances the artist-performer researched in developing the cross-artform project, currently premiering as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Tuulikki also investigated the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance of Staffordshire and the deer dances of the indigenous Yaqui of Sonora in Mexico.

As well as observing the dances as they are performed today, Tuulikki learned from cultural “traditional bearers”, shadowed deer stalkers and watched the animals in their natural habitats.

There are three elements to Deer Dancer: a two-channel film and sound installation, a series of prints which notate a dance score in deer tracks and the costumes of five stag-men – hybrid characters informed by Tuulikki’s research.

A specialist in working with gesture and the voice, the Scotland-based artist is particularly interested in how animals influence human culture. For five years Tuulikki developed Away With The Birds, a multi-disciplinary work looking at birds in traditional Scottish Gaelic song.

Just as that project climaxed with a one-off performance on the Isle of Canna, the intention is that Deer Dance will be developed for future live performance, she says: “I’m interested in how across time and place our relationship with deer has informed our understanding of place,” Tuulikki.

When she shadowed modern-day stalkers over a number of autumns in the Highlands, Tuulikki observed how they still imitate deer.

The Highland Fling is said to have originated as a deer dance, the hands-aloft position imitating antlers. “Actually it was choreographed by a Lowlander as a caricature of a wild Highland savage,” Tuulikki says. “There’s a complex layering to these dances, with different forms of appropriation. With that dance in particular, I think it relates to the romantic idea of deer in Scotland.

“We have this barren landscape in Scotland which we think of as ‘wilderness’ but it’s a fabricated landscape because of deer overpopulation. They eat the trees. We don’t have wilderness, what we have is a damaged ecology.”

Britain’s ecology was originally based on hunting grounds, something echoed in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, still performed every September.

Tuulikki has taken part in the dance, in which dancers carry reindeer antlers dating from the 11th century.

They parade through the Staffordshire village from dawn till dusk, stopping to perform at every farm and pub.



“They also go to the manor house to perform and the local lord and lady come out and shake their hands,” Tuulikki says. “It’s thought to be the trace of a hunting ritual where they are giving thanks, essentially to the king, to allow them to hunt at certain times of the year.”

Tuulikki was interested in the meaning of these practises now hunting is now more about trophies than necessity.

When the ancestors of the Yaqui people of northern Mexico hunted, they would ask for forgiveness for taking the deer’s lives in songs.

Visiting southern Arizona a few years ago, Tuulikki found a copy of Yaqui Deer Songs: A Native American Poetry and went on to meet its co-author Felipe Molina. Molina then organised a meeting with a dancer from the Yaqui homelands in the Sonora desert.

“We had to cross the border into Nogales,” says Tuulikki. “The dancer worked with me in a hotel room. Then we had to go back across the border which was very eye-opening in terms of how people are treated.”

At the centre of Deer Dancer are the stag-men hybrids, characters Tuulikki perfoms in the film installation.

The National: The stag-men fight to the deathThe stag-men fight to the death

Meeting in an imaginary wilderness world, they face one another, perform their dance and fight to the death.

“Learning these dances opened up my thinking on performances of masculinity,” she says. “I allowed my imagination to discover these characters, which occupy a space between male deer and humans. I became really interested in parallel behaviours between both: the rutting stag, the bravado display, the capering of the younger fawn, and how that connects with my own experiences of forms of bravado and display in human culture.”

Tuulikki adds: “I was interested in this non-binary space, a place between the hunter and the hunted. I think there’s a striking parallel between gender performance and constructions of wilderness. I think if we can move beyond our constructions, binary ideas of male and female, human and animal, nature and culture, maybe we can begin to understand the interconnections between things.”

Until October 6 (closed Mondays), Edinburgh Printmakers, Castle Mills, Edinburgh, 10am to 5pm, free.

Tel: 0131 557 2479.