Review: Man-Cub, Etcetera

“Switch Grindr off before the night begins…”

For all the rainbow flags painted on cheeks at Pride and declarations of being an ally, I don’t straight people can ever really appreciate the extraordinary rush of feeling that comes from going to your first gay club. The excitement, the fear, the sexiness, the strangeness, the sense of community that feels right at your fingertips, the sense of potential isolation equally, precariously close – it can be a most eye-opening, exhilarating experience. It can also be more ambivalent than that.
And it is the complexity of this sensory overload that Alistair Wilkinson captures evocatively in his dance-led devised piece Man-Cub. Trailed as a queer adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it feels looser than that but Alex Britt’s first-time gay club-goer is our Mowgli and the club is his jungle. And if we don’t get a Baloo (no bears in this gay club!) or a Kaa (joke about being hung like a python redacted), what we do get it a sense of the tribal fervour of the dancefloor. 
The sheer joy from dancing with complete abandon, the worlds of possibility that come from the relative anonymity, the sensuality you find in connecting with like-minded souls, even if only for the running time of ‘I Feel Love’. That sexuality is permeated through every horned-up, hip-thrusting minute of Man-Cub, from dancefloor hook-ups to something substantially darker and though sex is not the be all and end all of gay clubbing, it is inextricably linked up to the process of self-discovery and this piece is perfectly attuned to that.
The segments that move away from the choreography don’t always feel as strong though: the use of spoken word doesn’t find the profundity for which it reaches; a slowed-down ‘I Wanna Be Like You’ veers a little close to John Lewis advert territory. More compelling are those darker reaches of the jungle, the dance moves that look like drug seizures, the sexual attraction that turns predatory… And there’s no denying the thumping thrill of those most memorable of nights out, the first times that accompany them as well as the dangers, and Man-Cub captures much of that uniquely charged excitement. 
Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Tammana BegumBooking until 16th July

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Review: Trinity, The Asylum Peckham

Ovalhouse and BraveNewWorlds’ Trinity describes itself as a design-led performance and it does feel more art installation than conventional theatre. And like much of modern art, it benefits from explanation by its creators, captions explaining and connecting the artistic vision behind what might otherwise seem vague and untethered. 

So in their words, Trinity “explores the aesthetics of gender and female iconography in society’s visual culture, from pagan and religious artefacts to pop culture’s bedroom selfies”. |In mine, it exploits the visual representation of female roles to stunning effect but decreasing returns, as it offers little more that is tangible.
Created by Valentina Ceschi, Guoda Jaruseviciute, and Kate Lane, who also perform the piece, it it undoubtedly deeply felt and there are moments of real beauty and emotion. But there’s also bafflement and frustration in there as you try to dig beneath the visual aesthetic to find…well, nothing there that you can take away yourself.
Staged in the derelict remains of a gothic chapel in Peckham, the location also adds to this. It is a hugely atmospheric space but one hardly suited to the purpose at hand, the piece often feeling marooned in its fog of dry ice, what specificities there are swallowed up by unforgiving sightlines. 
But still, but still, it lingers long in the mind with all its offbeat inventiveness. It is so effectively visual and Demetrio Castellucci’s ritualistic electronic score is haunting indeed – a real curiosity which you should probably make up your own mind about.
Running time: 50 minutes (without interval)Booking until 27th June

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Pictures of Jekyll and Hyde, Old Vic

Truth be told, I don’t review much dance because I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. And because I don’t feel qualified to comment on it, I don’t see much dance…and so the vicious cycle continues. I was able to get a ticket to the last night of Drew McOnie’s re-imagining of Jekyll and Hyde though, it having been recommended to me by several people, but knowing that I wouldn’t be writing about it, I might have had a couple of sherbets pre-show. So aside from saying that I really enjoyed it, I won’t be commenting any more to say that Manuel Harlan took these lovely pics.

Review: Wind in the Willows, Vaudeville

“Let my creatures rise again”

Adding to the diversity of festive offerings on the stage, The Wind in the Willows was the Royal Opera House’s first venture into the West End last December and now returns for a second year of adventuring through the riverbank, the Wild Wood and beyond. It might not be the instinctive choice for a Christmas show – a dance version of Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel – but it has a gently persuasive charm that ought to appeal to all ages.

A wonderfully charismatic performance from Cris Penfold brings Toad to manic attention-seeking life – likewise Sonya Cullingford’s meek myopic Mole, Martin Harvey’s rakish rowing Ratty and Ira Mandela Siobhan’s bonny bright Badger – and through Will Tuckett’s expressive choreography and direction, their stories come to life. Solely through the medium of dance, all four offer a wonderful sense of character and camaraderie through their series of jocular japes and journeys.

They’re aided by a really rather nifty design from The Quay Brothers that feels like it might have fallen out of a pop-up storybook as rivers tumble from wardrobe doors, giant chairs are upended into prison cells, butterflies float through the air on gloves. With imaginative puppetry from the inspired Toby Olié and an evocative score that runs through the breadth of English folk music from Martin Ward, there is much that can captivate here.

A rather prosaic narration from Alan Titchmarsh, playing the role of Kenneth Grahame as storyteller, does sap the magic at times though, he never settles into a performative role and so always give the impression of just delivering his lines. It is left to the likes of Ewan Wardrop to lift the theatrical mood as the bawdy Gaoler’s Daughter (as well as Otter and Chief Weasel) and celebrate the playful spirit of this sometimes delightful production.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 17th January

Review: Dad Dancing, Battersea Arts Centre

“Dave hasn’t danced since a disco in Nairobi in 1984”

Do you dread the moment your dad gets up on the dancefloor, or do you celebrate the time being spent together? Do you cringe at the moves he busts out, or give thanks that he’s able to do them? Do you despair at the lack of rhythm that seems to accompany fatherhood, or appreciate the specialness of the beat of his own drum? I think few of us could honestly say we’d answer the latter for any of the above but such questions, and more, lie at the heart of devised dance piece Dad Dancing which encourages us to reconsider.

Created and developed by three dance students looking to engage their fathers in their chosen craft beyond the standard attendance at the end-of-year showcases, this beautifully warm-hearted show has a most beguiling quality. Exploring not only their own relationships with their fathers, who appear alongside them here at the Battersea Arts Centre, they’re helped by a large supporting cast who bring their own father/child experiences to bear. Thus a whole spectrum of experience stands before us, asking what it means to be a son or daughter, to be a father, to be a dancer.

There’s a bittiness which is the hallmark of pretty much any devised show but equally a tautness which prevents Dad Dancing from ever being too indulgent. The women – Rosie Heafford, Alexandrina Hemsley and Helena Webb – use the full, expressive range of their contemporary dance skill to speak of what they’ve longed to say, the fathers – Adrian, Andy and David – bring their unique sense of movement which may be a mite more ungainly but no less eloquent in its willingness to participate in their childrens’ world, and the small but vital contributions from the chorus have a real potent power.

So for every endearing anecdote and expression of love, there’s also a reminder that not everyone has the same positive experience with their fathers, a sadly simple truth but one which punches with huge emotional force in the achingly beautiful segments where the 26-strong company combine to speak of their dads. But ultimately it is the dancing that shines through, whether rocking out to ‘Children of the Revolution’ or getting us all up for a joyous finale to ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ where the choreographed routine dissolves into the warm embrace of a dancefloor where we can all indulge in some dad dancing ourselves. Beguilingly good fun.

Running time: 75 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 15th November
Photo: Zoe Manders

Review: Flow, The Print Room

“Go with the flow…”

Since setting up as a new venue in 2010, The Print Room has pulled together programmes covering a wide range of artistic disciplines. So whilst the following months sees live sculpture making and plays from Brian Friel and Amy Herzog, one can currently take in an exhibition of photography and an international dance premiere in Hubert Essakow’s Flow. A musing on the unique properties of water and the different relationships that we have with it in its varying states, it creates a dance experience that is immersive in more ways than one.

Waterproof bibs, not dissimilar to binbags with neck holes, are handed out as the audience enter the West London studio, seated around the edge of the intimate space with its raised performance area and a column of sheer fabric in the centre. And from here, the five dancers work their way through their way through water in all of its forms, from the frozen tranquillity of the ice-bound opening sequence through to the exhilarating energy of a powerful storm with rain falling from sprinklers and the dancers splashing so gleefully, you’ll be glad of your binbag! 

Essakow’s choreography ebbs and flows beautifully through the different sequences, pulling together different combinations of the company as movement ripples through them, across them, out of them. Thomasin Gülgeç‘s measured solo from within the ice has a beautiful grace which stands out and all five impress in the Vapour and Gas section, fading in and out of sight as mist fills the space yet forms a kinetic connection between them all. With Tom Dixon’s elegant design and Peter Gregson’s elegiac score blending piano and cello with electronics, much of Flow combines delicacy and intensity to evocative, compelling effect.

But the show over-reaches itself when it ventures away from choreography. Stories of the dancers’ own experiences with water at least have a personal edge but the action is also interspersed with projections of hard-hitting statistics and witty bon mots. These just feel forced into the flow of the evening, alternately straining for a gravity or levity that doesn’t always feel warranted, given how emotive so much of the dancing is, and simply ends up trying too hard.

And it just doesn’t need to. The pleasure that comes from the fevered turbulence of the tempest is genuinely thrilling, even as the dancers thrash and splash with passion and intensity, and is soon followed by the gorgeously slow fluidity of the calm after the storm, a wistful sequence that melts away into the ether for a hushed but moving finale.  

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 23rd February


Originally written for The Public Reviews

Dance Review: Play Without Words, Sadler’s Wells

Truth be told, I am no real fan of dance shows. I do give it the occasional try hither and thither but it is an artform whose charms have largely bypassed me, but I do like to keep trying with things and so I took up the offer from a friend to take in Matthew Bourne’s Play Without Words at the Sadler’s Wells theatre. A 2002 commission for the National Theatre, it is receiving its first revival here as part of the New Adventures’ 25th anniversary celebrations, but though it is undoubtedly a stylish and slick piece of work, I found it to be rather soulless.
Inspired in 1960s British New Wave cinema, it borrows heavily from the 1963 Harold Pinter-scripted The Servant to tell of a well-to-do young man who hires a manservant to run his household but who ends up controlling his life. But what Bourne has done is to double- and sometimes triple-cast the characters so that the story is told with multiple perspectives and the varying possibilities of each scene are explored right in front of us. It’s a clever move and one which offers much opportunity but I couldn’t help but feel that by the end it was overused.

In terms of pure storytelling, it left me feeling close to baffled at times, narrative clarity always comes second to dramatic effect in that respect. And from my simplistic point of view, it left the stage constantly overloaded, where had there been more variety in terms of the three-fold iteration being alternated with a single dancer for each character, might have provided a cleaner contrast and heightened the excitement of the larger scenes. Terry Davies’ heavily jazz-inflected score was a little too one-note for my liking as well, almost monotonous in its insistent presence yet providing little variety.

That’s not to say that there weren’t aspects that I liked. Bourne’s choreography clearly defines character with great skill: the seductive maid, the uptight fiancée, the sexually voracious lurking man, it is clear throughout who these people are. And the two leading men, the calculating valet Prentice and the nerdily engaging Anthony as his employer, have a great chemistry as the balance of power shifts between them – the early dressing/undressing scene is excellently done – exemplified in the climactic subjugation of Anthony.
On balance, I can’t say that I disliked Play Without Words, but it did not make a convert out of me either. It didn’t engage me emotionally, it didn’t move me viscerally, but at the same time it is part of a world which eludes me.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 5th August

Review: The Nutcracker, Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Just a quickie, as I don’t really do much dance alongside my theatre-going and so I often struggle to write up these shows cogently, especially when there are so many others who write so well about dance. But I do go occasionally, and quite often it is at Christmas-time as part of a family tradition which is still being observed by me and one, if not the other, of my sisters as we are treated to a Christmas shopping trip, dinner and a show by Aunty Jean. We’ve taken in all sorts over the years, including countless Returns to the Forbidden Planet, a ridiculous Wizard of Oz and a John Rutter concert last year, but often it was to the ballet that we would go and so there’s something innately Christmassy about the ballet for me.

In that respect, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is the perfect festive indulgence and in this classic production by Sir Peter Wright, we were given a sumptuous, traditional and gorgeously danced treat. It looks amazing, the sets for the first act just get better and better, I only wish we could spend longer in the section where Clara is shrunk as the giant tree looks magnificent, and the final tableau is goosebump-inducingly beautiful. The snow-goose-related coup de grâce that opens the second act perfectly embodies the kind of magic that feels just right at this time of year and overall, it is easy to see why this is a production that returns year after year.

The music was beautifully played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy’s baton but for such a well-known show, there are surprisingly few distinct musical moments therein – it is not the most hummable of scores. Which means that the dancing is all the more important and to these uneducated eyes, everyone was on top form. Angela Paul’s lithe Clara, Iain Mackay’s handsome Prince, Matthew Lawrence’s swooping Drosselmeyer, Jenna Robert’s exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy, it all looked perfect to me. Combined with the great work from the company in the Land of the Sweets, it all made for a lovely Christmas trip and made me glad that this is a tradition we have stuck with.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £5
Booking until 11th December but playing the O2 27th-30th December

Review: (Wo)men and me, Blue Elephant

“Tu vois, je suis pas un homme
Je suis le roi de l’illusion
Au fond qu’on me pardonne
Je suis le roi, le roi des cons”

I’m not completely opposed to dance shows, but at the same time I very rarely book for them off my own bat. I prefer to go to shows that other people have picked and (hopefully) get swept along by their enthusiasm. Such it was with (Wo)men and me which also allowed me to tick another of my previously unvisited fringe venues, the Blue Elephant in Camberwell, which is another of my new local theatres. That the last dance show my friend had seen was the somewhat controversial and extremely naked Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! at Sadler’s Wells should have rung an alarm bell for me, but more of that later.

(Wo)men and me is a double bill by French performance maker and choreographer Tonny A ostensibly exploring androgyny and psychological identity. Or to my untrained eye, it was men dancing in pants, or at least once it got started. The first piece, AR-men, a duet between Nick Smith and Jean Magnard, took a long time to break out of the set-up for the concept. The two men in boxer shorts lay under a giant plastic sheet as a video played, a prison-guard type figure then ordered them to move around and finished by taping their bodies to the floor as another video played which began to stretch the patience. But once the business of actual dancing started, Smith and Magnard slowly breaking free, discovering their bodies and ultimately each other, I rather enjoyed the exploration of masculinity, suggesting a fast track through evolution through to a celebration of gay love.

The second piece, Women in Me, was more problematic for me. A solo piece performed by Tonny A, of several short routines that were structured around a contemporary female pop soundtrack, looking at a man rediscovering his innate femininity by casting off preconceived social and sexual identities to find his true self. And it was a (literally) nakedly personal performance, Tonny A pushing himself past any physical limitations and stripping all artifice away. But basing his movement around pop songs meant that it was all very disjointed (although it was nice to indulge in some French music too – more people should know who Zazie is!), the transitions between sections awkwardly handled and little sense of a continuous thread of exploration.

There were a couple of nice sections, Kylie’s Sensitised and Mylène Farmer’s Fuck Them All were my favourites, but as the last item of clothing was shed and the last part of the evening danced fully nude, it was hard to see how much femininity was being explored in the face of such obvious masculinity – it was a contrast too hard for me overcome and quite frankly, PJ Harvey’s Down By The Water will never sound quite the same! As the performer approached the audience area, whipping a pair of braces on the floor repeatedly, I had unfortunate visions of something similar to this happening http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/ (you can just make out the unimpressed look of my friend in the top left!) but boundaries were observed here, for which I am eternally grateful.

In the end, it wasn’t really for me. There wasn’t quite enough content that I found engaging enough to keep me hooked in a genre that I’m not entirely gripped by anyway, nor were the performances so breathtakingly amazing that I thought I simply must see more dance. But ultimately, this isn’t so much a reflection on the performers as on my own preferences.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 11th June

Review: Side Effects, dANTE OR dIE at Rich Mix

“Temazepam. 10mg. Insomnia. Number 505.”

Side Effects, a piece of dance-theatre by dANTE OR dIE at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, was inspired by a British Museum exhibition which reckoned that the average British person will take around 14,000 pills in their lifetime. Devised and performed by a team of five, under Daphna Attias’ direction, it delves into personal history to reveal the social context behind the increased part that medicine now plays in our lives as well as its more expected curative role.

The beauty of this concept and the way it is executed by a company with ages ranging from 20 to 75, is that almost everyone can relate to it somehow and as so many of the people involved in the production have medical backgrounds, it is rooted in a strong understanding of the issues. For me it was the treats after trips to the hospital that resonated most, I am remember always having a special meal waiting for me each time after a series of operations as a boy and so therefore it was Terry O’Donovan’s performance of his ‘list’ of ailments and maladies leavened with his enlightening stories that moved me the most.

But Simon Rice’s middle-aged insomniac husband was persuasive, clinging onto shreds of vanity, posing in the mirror; Laure Bachelot was wryly amusing in her taking of the Pill; Antigone Avdi powerfully moving as a menopausal mother and Betsy Field distressingly frank about how dependent the elderly can become on a series of medications. Each performer managed to tell their own stories well, but there was real beauty in seeing how they interacted together: the casual nonchalance of a long-married couple, the heady sexual passion of young adults in love, the tenderness of a middle-aged woman caring for her ailing mother and all three women in the family just coming together for the sake of it.

Being given a little cup full of pills (they are actually sweets) as we left the studio was a brilliant little touch, it meant we all left with a smile but also harks back to those childhood memories although I personally would have liked a sticker with a smiley face too! Thought-provoking in the way it probes our reliance on medicine, drawing on connections we can all make and informative on just what to take for a whole range of things: I could have done with an extended dose of it.

Running time: 60 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: free cast/info sheet available
Booking until 13th February