AN arts venue with a G41 postcode is a strange place to watch Family Portrait, an interactive, multi-screen dance film that celebrates the possibilities of connecting with Scotland’s glorious wilderness. The famous Tramway arts centre, where Barrowland Ballet’s piece premieres (ending its short run today), is at the heart of Glasgow’s southside, the area pinpointed by epidemiologists as the epicentre of the outbreak of the “Indian variant” of Covid-19 that has pushed Scotland’s largest city back into dreaded Tier 3 restrictions.

Glasgow’s status as a virtual plague colony adds an unintended level of irony to this video installation art work. With Glaswegians, alone among the people of Scotland, forbidden from going into the countryside, the piece plays Tramway as part of the largely online 2021 edition of the Take Me Somewhere performance festival.

Natasha Gilmore’s dance company Barrowland Ballet (BB) had a head start on many other live performance companies when the pandemic struck. While many artists took crash courses in transitioning from live theatre works to screened offerings, BB has produced a series of acclaimed intergenerational dance films, such as Loose Leaf Tea and Wolf, alongside its many live shows.

That adjective, “intergenerational”, is important here. BB runs an offshoot company, called Wolf Pack, which involves performers aged between seven and 80 years old.

Now, when Covid has disproportionately ravaged the elderly population and exacerbated the socio-economic and cultural gaps between the generations, is a good time to engage with the idea of meaningful interaction between people from different age groups. It is also, given the intensification and rupturing of family life caused by the virus, an ideal moment to contemplate what family means to us.

In Family Portrait, Gilmore communes with her young children, Otis, Iggy and Frieda, in a variety of beautiful, rural settings in Scotland. The small, physically distanced, masked-up audience sits on little swivel stools surrounded by four screens.

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Free to turn to whichever screen they choose, sometimes to follow action that flows from one screen to the next, the audience member quickly becomes immersed in a joyful, quirky, sometimes contemplative, and inventively original audio-visual experience. In an early scene, Gilmore puts herself at the disposal of her children, allowing them to squash berries on her face, making war paint from the consequent juice.

The youngest child, Frieda, is at liberty to stick a small branch in her mother’s mouth, making her mum look, unbeknownst to her, a little like Groucho Marx with his trademark cigar. In these days when digital technologies seem at least as likely to hinder as to help human interaction, this scene is not only charming in its sense of trust and intimacy, but also encouraging in its simple physicality.

Seated in close proximity to the screens, absorbed in the piece’s beautifully clear, crystal sharp cinematography, we can, if we so choose, improvise a seated choreography of our own as we follow the family’s game of hide and seek. Elsewhere, a fearless encounter with what looks like a dead and decomposing crow prompts memories of a successful rescue of an injured bird.

A family march using a branch for the younger children to dangle from looks like a benevolent collision between JM Barrie’s Lost Boys and the misanthropically degenerate children in William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

The children’s seemingly unprompted improvising of a simple ditty promoting “peace and harmony” and their use of the respectful, Indian greeting “namaste” are typical of the underlying humanism of the piece, which puts Golding’s dark insinuations of original sin to shame.

THERE are moments of lovely humour, such as Otis’s list of his fears (which includes the lovable, claymation character Pingu) and Frieda’s decision to suddenly sit in a puddle. The sound of cracking, perhaps from a wildcat stepping on a branch, turns out to be a child crunching on a packet of potato hoops.

There are poignant moments, too, such as Gilmore being buried entirely in bark by her children. As the kids complete their labours, and stand back respectfully, the play ritual takes on the solemn character of a real funeral.

The soundtrack, which surrounds us as effectively as the piece’s quartet of screens, is a brilliantly diverse, yet consistently appropriate companion to what is happening visually. Birdsong and other sounds of nature combine beautifully with composer Davey Anderson’s fabulous musical score, which ranges from up-tempo electropop to subtle acoustic pieces and the plaintive sounds of the Scottish fiddle.

In the midst of all this gloriously free-form play, there are moments of fine, clearly defined choreography. A screened work that, nevertheless, requires one to get out of the house, Family Portrait is set to entertain and inspire audiences at the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival and beyond.

For tour dates for Family Portrait, visit: