Category Archives: #NEWYOUNG

Swarm Sculptures

Swarm Sculptures.jpg.jpeg

This beautiful photograph by Mike Huxley is of the second version of Lucy Suggate’s Swarm Sculptures that I’ve seen – this time in the Gallery at the Vijay Patel building at De Montfort University. Last week I stood with a colleague right up close as the performers began to sway slightly and then build up to rocking and then gradually peel off and disperse around the gallery space. Thrilling.

Juncture at Yorkshire Dance, 1: ‘Wallflower’.

I only managed to attend one day of Yorkshire Dance’s Juncture festival, curated by Gillie Kleiman. On the Saturday that I was able to get to Leeds, there was a really packed programme. Talking to people who’d been there for a couple of days, I sensed the festival had gathered a momentum – people referring in conversations to pieces they’d seen earlier in the week, or things that had come up during previous talks.

I got to the Yorkshire Dance building by 11am for a talk on dance and politics. Then in the afternoon I saw Nicola Conibere’s Assembly, going on from it to see part of a five hour durational version of Quarantine’s Wallflower, and then, in the evening, I saw Immigrants and Animal’s new Double Penetration version of Laura Laura. I had wanted to see Assembly and Laura Laura, but only booked for Wallflower because it was on. I knew nothing about it and it was a big surprise for me.

I only know about Quarantine from their website. They seem to me to be a project-based theatre or performance company with a northern focus who work on projects in an experimental way but do so in ways that can engage diverse communities (rather than the usual dance or drama audience). Wallflower‘s premise was an attempt by each of the dancers to individually remember every dance they’d ever ance and try, during the run of the piece, to reconstruct it. I’m guessing the Quarantine creative team deliberately chose particular performers for Wallflower and brought them together to create it since they all have such different backgrounds.


[Jo Fong. photo from]

I must have been seeing Jo Fong dancing with various companies – including Extemporary, Rosas, DV8, Rambert – for 25 years or more. The other performers I didn’t know. My guess is that James Monahan comes from a drama background while Nic Green from live art? Sonia Hughes is a writer and dance-floor queen. She was a formidable presence performing while sitting with the audience having got a leg injury dancing the night before. There was one more dancer who I guess was there because Hughes couldn’t dance, but she was not listed in the programme. All the dancers sat in the audience when not actually presenting their memories of a dance or of some other movement event.img_2104-705x400

[Sonia Hughes, James Monahan and Jo Fong in Wallflower. photo from]

A lot of the time I was there, the performers remembered parties and clubbing, so danced to a variety of different kinds of music, including rock, motown, punk, funk, soul, indie. There were also bits of remembered contemporary dance. Jo Fong danced to Steve Reich’s Piano Phase remembering, I assume, a few phrases from De Keersmaeker’s Fase. Sometimes these bits of choreography were performed full on, sometimes marked. Those with some formal dance training remembered ballet and contemporary classes, and there were bits of folk dance and Irish step dancing.

DU16 Quarantine 3 Photo Simon Banham.jpg[Sonia Hughes. photo from]

The music came from a DJ (who changed each hour) who was sitting at a table with laptops and other equipment at one end of the performing space which was arranged in a traverse stage format. Dancers requested tracks, sometimes without remembering their name but just humming them in a way that reminded me of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Sometimes performers talked through personal memories – one dancer, as a teenager, had had a television that was right up against the foot of her bed and at night lay watching it with her foot on the ‘off’ button ready to turn if off if her parents peeped in to check she was going to sleep. Another remembered a scary encounter when he was with a group of friends out late who were held up at gunpoint by a gang and robbed.

The cast took it in turns to be the archivist and write a brief record of each dance in a big hardback notebook. They changed over, I think, once an hour, and at one moment we were told exactly how many thousand dances they had remembered since the first performance in Groningen last year, and how many hours and minutes this had taken. On a table on the way to the exit was a typescript ‘The Index’ which listed each dance up until today’s performance.

I turned up an hour after the performance had begun and stayed two and a half hours. Because I’d been late it took me a while to work out what was going on. Audience members came and went. Sometimes we saw high energy dancing, sometimes there were great stories, a bit of karaoke or a party piece. But there were also lulls and quiet moments. I suspect there were some fixed, rehearsed moments that they always did during each performance, and some kind of running order for these key moments were spaced out during the performance with room between for new, impromptu memories.

Performers paced themselves to last the full five hours. And they seemed to be supporting each other, chatting together and commenting on what they were doing, sometimes standing in for someone in the past or becoming an extra body for a re-enactment.

Although they were all from such different backgrounds, they empathised with each other. They too had felt something like that, or had done something like that. Sometimes they laughed at cultural references I didn’t always catch. Because I became immersed in the piece because it went on so long, I too somehow felt myself being drawn into the sense of community that the piece was generating.

The dancing itself often looked and felt quite spontaneous and rough though actually there was some wonderful dancing that is still fresh in my mind as I write this review a week later. This roughness seemed to give an ‘accessible’ feeling to the show, but there was nothing superficial to it.


[Nic Green. photo from]

Memories are powerful stuff. Memories are something that we share with others who were there with us at the time or that we told someone about just after it happened. I don’t think I have many memories that no one else has, things that I never told to anyone. Memory is both personal and collective, and we can sometimes adapt or revise our memories so that they conform with what others, who were also there, insist happened. There must have been occasions when I myself have insisted that my own memory is better than someone else’s.

There is something particularly poignant about some performers’ struggle to remember a movement sequence that has almost gone, the detail already irretrievable but the feelings that accompanied it still lingering. Memory’s failure, a reminder of mortality, and preparation for dying.

But one of the wonderful things about trained dancers is their ability to remember long complex sequences of moves which they can bring back sometimes ten or fifteen years later with the help of the original music, or diagrams or words in a notebook, photos, or snowy video tape. Magically, if at the right moment the other dancer in the piece is in the right place behind them, even that can bring back muscle and spatial memories. Dancers’ acts of remembering are for me sources of hope.

There were moments when the archivist looked at what they’d noted down and gave us a brief summary of what they felt were the highlights from the previous hour. These summaries magically brought dancers and spectators together in a collective act of remembering that was quite special. And to think that I almost hadn’t book for Wallflower … hmmm.

Time to stop whingeing and do something?

Here’s a list of some of the things that seem to me to restrict independent dance artists in the UK at the moment

  • lack of sufficient, appropriate financial support
  • institutional systems that prioritise reach, engagement, and impact so that artists end up trying to meet agendas set by funding bodies and producers rather than their own artistic priorities and needs.
  • a dearth of physical space in which to make work, and then a dearth of opportunities for showing it and, in particular, a lack appropriate and supportive ones for untested new ideas.
  • a discursive vacuum, a lack of outlets for artistic discussions around innovative dance practices (choreography, performance, training etc.) thus inhibiting the development of a context for its reception and dissemination.
  • internalised restrictions, things that one perhaps doesn’t even recognise one refrains from thinking, let alone doing, for fear of making waves or going out on a limb. How easy is it for example to challenge ideologically contaminated assumptions about artistic freedom and individualism?

These thoughts came to me after two events I attended on the same evening in the final week of Dance Umbrells 2016. These were the talk Body Politic 2016: freedom of movement. How does a climate of censorship affect art? and a performance of Gala by Jérôme Bel.

Can one call the restrictions I’ve outlined here censorship? I associate censorship with the Law, something about which I don’t claim to have much understanding. The idea of censorship brings to mind legislation around the distribution of violent or pornographic material. One recent prominent example of this kind of body politics (though not one mentioned in the Body Politic event) was the case where Pandora Blake made a successful legal challenge against the Audio Visual Media Services regulations. She has pointed out that these, in effect, favour porn made for heterosexual male customers while banning video of practices relating to female pleasure and to those of sexual minorities (see and

Natalia Kalinda of Belarus Free Theatre ( who was one of the speakers at the Body Politic event, talked about making live performance work in Belarus and how to tackle the abusive censorship in that country. She went on to point out, however, that in her opinion arts funding systems in the UK are comparable to censorship in countries like Belarus because financial pressures can be as restrictive as political censorship.

Jamila Johnson-Small, also on the panel, spoke about what she perceived to be a problematic when she performed or, as she put it, made an exhibition of herself. She read from a blog in which she asks herself ‘how do I not climb into a cage of my own making’. ( She talked about the constant physical negotiation of institutional systems, and of how to work within them without being taken over by them.

What kind of freedoms do such negotiations offer? That was the thought I took with me to Jérôme Bel’s Gala which I went on to see after the talk.

Gala reminded me of Bel’s Disabled Theatre which I saw during Dance Umbrella 2015. In the former the cast are made up of people who are autistic or have downs syndrome, while the cast of Gala includes a range of people ranging from pre-teens to someone who I thought was 70 or over, BME people, people with disabilities, and gender queer folk. A few were professional dancers or performers while most were untrained amateurs.


[Gala, Dance Umbrella 2016, Photograph: Foteini Christofilopoulou 2016 from The Guardian]

In both pieces the participants seem to have been given tasks to perform which they then execute on stage on their own one after the other, with some group material at the end. I remember Bel saying last year that, in Disabled Theatre, the performers were free to do whatever they wanted, and that he couldn’t have made them do what he wanted if he tried. In Gala I assume there was a similar intention to give the performers freedom to do whatever they want without interference. The programme notes that they each chose their own costumes.

Whereas Disabled Theatre received quite a mixed reception, Gala seems to have been well received (see Judith Mackrell’s review for example). I’ve met people who loved it. The people I found myself sitting next to at Sadlers Wells had seen it at the Bernie Grant Centre and liked it so much that they’d come back to see it again. Interestingly they weren’t even regular dance goers. There was a standing ovation the night I saw it. But (did you sense there was a ‘but’ coming?) I felt uneasy about Gala.

I felt that the idea that the performers were free to do whatever they wanted was illusory. Its attraction as an idea comes from the idea of freedom that underpins the individualism encouraged by the consumer culture of C21st capitalism. I thought the performers in Gala were completely controlled by the rational system that Bel had devised. They were obedient, always performing their tasks faithfully without embellishment, event in the ‘Michael Jackson’ themed section when the audience’s laughs and cheers must have tempted some of them to add a little extra embellishment while they were still on stage.

The structure of Gala could be compared with that of a tv show like Britain’s Got Talent albeit with a more avant-garde aesthetic. In Johnson-Small’s terms, the work allowed the performers to climb into cages of their own making. Giving Gala a standing ovation seemed to me to be giving a stamp of approval to a system as totalising and controlling as that of most of our increasingly precarious working lives under neoliberal austerity.

And it is that system that people like Natalia Kalinda point out we need to resist.


I like a good whinge or rant but realistically that is not enough (Eeyore has always been one of my favourite characters). Somehow we need to do something. But what? well, I don’t have a real answer to this but just some suggestions, ones that comes from a workshop by Paul Mason that I attended at the Momentum fringe conference The World Transformed during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool last month.

What Mason said there seems to be based on a recent blog he wrote Find each other and act! Twelve principles for a neo-Bevanite left ( Here are extracts from some of these principles that we might think about translating into tactics suitable to the needs of independent dance artists.

  1. Understand what’s really happening.
  2. Exercise free speech.
  3. Form affinity groups.
  4. Emulate social movements.
  • Resist in a way that forces those in power into a “decision dilemma”
  • Think of every action in three parts: prepare, act, reflect
  • Design actions either to communicate or to achieve concrete goals
  • Act in a way that reframes the story; re-set the narrative
  • Be peaceful, funny and human
  1. Link to the wider progressive movement.
  2. Learn new ideas. Or teach people.
  3. It’s their media but it’s our voice.
  • Populate the media. The letters pages, radio phone-in programmes, audience Q&As, vox popsthey are all spaces [in which a] radical voice needs to be heard. (…)
  • Create waves through social media. The newspapers and TV are important because they maintain a monopoly of distribution. The internet breaks that monopoly. Social media, no matter how heavily policed and distorted by algorithms, is an important tool in our fight for social justice. It can bring to the palm of everybody (i) truth (ii) undistorted arguments (iii) periodic calls to do something.
  • We need our own media. (…) The point is not to make propaganda. It is to report the news fairly, in a way the mainstream media will not do. In the short term we need a way of aggregating the content produced by small alternative media; professionalising what they do … (selected extracts from Paul Mason’s blog)

Is there a way of adapting Mason’s programme that might offer potentials for dealing with the restrictions I outlined at the start of this blog post?

Jamila Johnson-Small ‘I ride in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere’ 8-10-16, Rich Mix, Dance Umbrella 2016.

DIFFERENT WAYS. My immediate response to Jamila Johnson-Small’s I ride in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere was how many DIFFERENT WAYS there are into it. J J-S could be dancing in a club (while there are still any left and, if you knew the right place to go, you could hear something like the sound and music of her piece coming from a sound system like the one from Gentle Energy that is stacked up like a monolith on one side of the stage.

[a different sound system from the one in ‘I ride in colour’. photo from]

BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM. What makes it look like a monolith is the beautiful, dolmen-like rock sculpture, by Joey Addison, that stands on the other side of the stage. You’d be more likely to come across that in an art gallery. And J J-S’s dancing is also quite minimalist. It is constructed from repeating cells which only gradually change and shift. Like Keersmaeker’s Fase or Lucinda Child’s Dance, there is no development, but instead a steady level of intensity in which details gradually build into a network of choreographic textures. All these different LAYERS seem in sometimes contradictory TENSIONS with one another (layers that are more like vacuum-formed, cross laminated timber than the concentric skins of an onion).


[photo from]

AGAINST EXPECTATIONS. At first and for longer than one might have EXPECTED, there are just the sounds – a mash-up of words and voices with an EMERGING beat, no dancing yet. It’s advertised as a solo, right? So why do one, two and then a third dancer – who’d all been hanging around the bar outside before the doors opened – get up and dance along to the music with J J-S? They make a diagonal BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM, each in their own PRIVATE spotlight. Each moves in their own singular way and their moves are often more extended and maybe have more energy than hers.

ARENDT. ‘A life spent entirely in public, in the presence of others, becomes, as we would say, shallow. While it retains its visibility, it loses the quality of rising into sight from some darker ground which must remain hidden against the light of publicity in a real, non-subjective sense’ (The Human Condition p. 71). In I ride in colour… for the first half of the performance J J-S wears a very chic, black hoodie. Clothes are shed revealing other tighter, brighter layers underneath. J J-S rises into sight from a darker ground, doing so slowly, never fully revealing herself as an integral whole, but always as a subject in process of EMERGING. Addison’s rock sculpture looks as if it is made of crumpled sliver foil but, when lights shine directly at it, its interiority EMERGES effervescent like mother of pearl.

DENSITY. The rhythms, the increasingly elegant and clearly articulated steps and gestures build up a DENSITY that is, at times, almost hypnotic. And at one moment I thought some singing had a slightly African feeling. J J-S’s sensitivity and responsiveness to changes in the music and sound score could perhaps be thought of in West African terms – the good dancer listens and is always alert to what is happening with the drums. But if I suggest this, it is only as one LAYER of my reading, one that exists in TENSION with a multiplicity of others (including yours).


[Fabric. Photo: Alamy from The Guardian.]

URBAN. Paul Mason writes: ‘I have a strong hunch that the city is going to be the primary venue of change […]. Cities have stopped eviscerating their centres; young, networked people want to live right in the centre  – sometimes two or three to a room  – because they understand the city is the closest the analog world comes to a network. The city is where the networked individual wants to live – at least for some of their life, and for some of their working year or week’ ) I ride in colour… begins with a mash-up of voices talking about London streets and neighbourhoods. The music and dancing could be called URBAN, and when J J-S and the other three dancers each fall into the groove of the music, they are part of a swarm moving together in roughly similar directions as part of this URBAN network. At a different level, another kind of aesthetic networking is happening through the tensions in between the layers of sounds, images, moves, qualities, energies, vibrations.

In DIFFERENT WAYS, PRIVATE but EMERGING, J J-S dances the TENSIONS of the URBAN BETWEEN THE ROCK AND THE SOUND SYSTEM, and rides in colour and soft focus no longer anywhere.

Of, or at a fairly low temperature. Lewys Holt, Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre

‘Who’s your cool icon?’ Lewys Holt asks near the beginning of his one man show Of, or at a fairly low temperature (which is I guess a dictionary definition of ‘cool’). Two iconic figures immediately come to mind, Earl ‘Snake-hips’ Tucker, and The Dude in The Big Lewbowski.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild explains what cool is, in dance, by describing Tucker’s jazz solos from the 1920s and 1930s. These combined sinous hips movements and hyperflexible contortions with macho kicks and rippling, jazzy arms – all of his stunning virtuosity completely belied by his neutral facial expression. Cool, she writes, is the paradox between performing amazingly difficult feats while implying that they aren’t anything. No sweat.

The Dude is almost the opposite. His natural state is to appear to do nothing, and seem not to let the chaotic and disastrous things going on around him disturb his equanimity. But again, no sweat.

Lewys manages to be like both of them. He seems to have the lazy, narcissistic self-confidence to tell us that he’s cool and get away with it. In a bit of stand-up near the start he seems to be improvising lazily, almost as if he’s seeing how little he can do and get away with it. Just turning on the tap in a sink in the corner of the anatomy theatre gets a laugh.

[photo: Liam Keown]

Some of the things he does are pretty cool. He opens with a sequence where he plays a tiny toy guitar while his jeans fall down; he kicks them off, straightens them with his toes then somehow manages to wriggle his way back into them. while standing up. The way he stretches and wiggles his legs and hips makes them gradually creep back up to his waist.

[photo: David Wilson Clarke]

When he tells us about his first experiences of contemporary dance, he gets more serious. Talking about dance and masculinity, he wiggles a bit and raises questions about whether these are male. For me it is the confidence that allows him to claim to be cool that makes what he does masculine. And it makes me aware just how much things have changed since I first started writing about dance and masculinity in the 1980s.


[photographer: James Hissett. screenshots from Lewys Holt’s vimeo teaser at

Which brings me to Brexit. Bexit? This year at the fringe, my response to everything seems to be coloured by Brexit. It seems no accident to me that Bridget Christie, that most political of stand-up comics, had to rewrite her show after the referendum. She knew that the mood at the Fringe would have been changed by it. So why am I bringing this up in relation to Lewys’s show? It doesn’t refer to it – no jokes about having had enough of experts, or about the audience being split 48/52. But I got something from Of, or at a fairly low temperature that suggested to me a way of coping with the very worrying future that’s now facing us. How not to be knocked off centre by the unexpected, how to be cool in the face of risks.

There Lewys is at the end, falling onto the floor because of the way all the clothes he’s just put on are restricting his movements, splayed out and looking poignantly up at us with his shiny blue eyes, and somehow getting away with it. He can cope with it, no sweat.

[Declaration of interest: Lewys was one of my students.]

Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s discussion of Earl ‘Snake-hips’ Tucker is in Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts.

Water on Mars, Gandini Juggling at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

This evening I’ve just seen Gandini Juggling’s new show Water on Mars at Assembly Roxy as part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It is the third piece of theirs that I’ve seen; two years ago there was their wonderful, Pina Bausch themed Smashed. Last year I saw 4×4 Ephemeral Architectures which brought together jugglers with ballet dancers. Both pieces had quite large casts, but this year’s show is for three young energetic men and seems to me not to have a theme but just to be straight, unbelievably virtuoso juggling.

The individual sequences are cleverly put together to make great theatre. The three jugglers – Wes Peden, Tony Pezzo & Patrik Elmnert – can do extraordinary, literally incredible things but start small, gradually drawing us in the audience in to the show and making us look more closely at what they’re doing and then building up more and more complicated sequences. They use clubs, then they use balls, hoops, clubs that magically attach together end-to-end then disconnect again to become single clubs. Then weird combinations of clubs stuck together with sellotape, and even toilet rolls, and bags of toffees.

[photo from]

I’m not a circus insider, but once spent a few days at the Circus Space in London with a choreographer who was making a show on some students there. Always at the back of studio a few, who were not actually involved in the particular bit being rehearsed, would be practicing juggling, their attempts punctuated by noisy crashes as all their clubs hit the floor. What’s so magical about watching Gandini Juggling is that everything works perfectly, nothing is dropped unless it is intended. I guess juggling is so demanding because there’s no room for error. But perfection can be static, and subject to the laws of diminishing returns. It is the way Gandini Juggling deal with this which makes their shows so interesting.

Two things usually strike me about their shows. First, the subtle patterns in the sequences that the jugglers make. In a sequence where an arc of clubs are rising to medium height in a regular pulse, and suddenly each man makes his club soar up much higher in perfect unison; or with balls, they alternately each throw one ball up and as it comes down throw up two in its place.

The second thing is the way the shows try to make us look at juggling differently, as if we’ve never looked at it properly before. In all the Gandini shows I’ve seen there are sequences where three people stand so close together that they all seem to be juggling the same balls in one single arc, reaching or snatching through each other’s arms to keep the balls going. One person almost with six hands and three faces.

Another extraordinary sequence has one man holding a big down transparent plastic storage box upside in front of another who juggles balls up into it, bouncing them inside off the top or sides. An ordinary, household object that one would never have thought of using in this kind of way.

[photo from]

The final sequence gets wilder and more energetic – they’re young and bursting with energy. In it they seem to break all the rules, deliberately knocking one another so that they drop their clubs; throwing so many hoops in the air that they can possibly catch them. Then there’s the toilet rolls, some of which they end up throwing into the audience, then they juggle with open, half litre bottles of spring water so that each leaves a trail of water in the air that shines momentarily in the lighting. One crazy thing after another in quick succession, faster and crazier rushing headlong to end in a satisfyingly wild frenzy.

Then, as we file out, there are the jugglers and stage crew hard at it clearing up the mess and mopping the floor because another show is scheduled shortly. I’m full of admiration, amazement, and exhaustion.

Dolores Bouckaert & Charlotte Vanden Eynde: ‘Deceptive Bodies’. Theater Kikker, SPRING festival 21st May 2016.

I want to call pieces like this, which present two dancers of the same sex, duos rather than duets. A duet suggests some sort of romantic relationship but at the start of Deceptive Bodies the way that Dolores Bouckaert and Charlotte Vanden Eynde keep their distance from one another and establish a slight tension between them makes clear this is not a performance of friendship. We watch two women doing things on stage together that explore the performance of femininity in quite an exposed way that gradually builds up an intriguing intensity.

Early on they take turns to manipulate each other, Bouckaert treating Vanden Eynde as an object that ends down low, stretched out horizontally.


Eynde dresses Bouckaert up in black velvet and a black leather crown like the Black Queen in Alice in Wonderland, manipulating her arms and hands like a doll to make histrionic gestures.

Every now and then they do things slowly and intensely that seem innocent but could potentially have a sexual connotation. For example, at one point each takes off their underpants. At another, sitting closely and staring intently at one another with mouths wide open, they both stuck out their tongues.


Towards the end, seated on chairs on little low stage trucks, they dressed up in long rich velvet-like pieces of cloth and take up poses that conjured up for me many, many old master paintings, particularly by early renaissance artists like Van Eyck and Van der Weyden. The lighting design was excellent.

At one moment Bouckaert opened her dress to reveal her breast like a Virgin Mary offering her breast to the baby Jesus, but also somehow resembling one of Cindy Sherman’s self portraits dressed up as old master paintings.

[Cindy Sherman Self Portrait]

Other poses they took up at this time made me think of photographs of some of the female hysterical patients treated by Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93).


[By Jean-Martin Charcot –, Public Domain, ]

And the final poses under a strong red light surely referred to sex workers. Deceptive Bodies took us in the audience on a journey through different ways in which femininity is framed. This gradually led us into increasingly intense and intimate scenes. Bouckaert and Vanden Eynde performed all these representations with detachment, with neutral faces unless their tableau required a mask-like emotional expression. The result was subtle: they never presented caricatures, never seemed to take up a critical stance. They continued to appear detached and emotionally separate from one another throughout the performance even while physically close or touching. But each moved in and out of their poses at the same time and moved with the same slow rhythm.

They seemed, in their duo, to have a basic relationship as if they had accepted each other’s differences. And this kind of acceptance also seemed to extend to all the different ways of being feminine that they presented, however problematic or difficult some of these might be. In their quietly unemphatic, intimate but also sometimes edgy way, they seemed to point towards something important about the negotiation of gender norms in our contemporary, image saturated society.



Simon Mayer ‘Sons of Sissy’, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, SPRING festival. 20th May 2016

There is something endearing about male dancers’ clumsiness. It proves their normativity – women dancers are generally more precise so that men’s almost unintentional clumsiness somehow shows that they’re just men. At the same time, this clumsiness constitutes a failure to live up to the unachievable ideal that men are somehow conditioned to think they should strive to attain. That ideal, of course, functions to maintain normative white heterosexual privilege. Clumsiness can undermine this, and can point to the persistence of other ways of performing masculinity. Sorry for this long, theoretical introduction, but this for me is the context for my response to Simon Mayer’s Sons of Sissy. Much of this piece is so odd that it is difficult to discuss it without first giving some description of it.

While some of the dancing that Mayer and his three male fellow performers execute was sometimes a bit rough and clumsy, their musicianship was immaculate. It began with them singing and playing Alpine folk music on two violins, an accordion and a double bass.

Mayer was wearing an ambiguous costume that could have been a folk costume skirt and blouse but also read as female drag. There was something very slightly exaggerated about the way they played with each other, an edginess that hinted that Sons of Sissy would be more than just folk music. And sure enough, this section ended in discord and some moderate trashing of their instruments.

Each subsequent section also ended in discord. Each built slowly, taking its time to gradually become more intense: lots of stamping precise rhythms; pirouetting that was actually quite beautiful but somehow seemed clumsy because of the harsh shouts that served as cues to start them.

Deliberately messy to hide their artistry. Traditional dance steps, folk rhythms, but with an underlying tension that eventually snapped when one of the men fell to the floor. A second moment of discord.

All four were by now tired and out of breath and took their time changing at the side of the stage, pausing before going on. At the end of this they were all naked and remained so for the rest of the piece.

Four white naked men danced a traditional-looking circle dance. To this was added body percussion whose repeated slaps on upper thighs and abdomen left these glowing red. While the folk rhythms hinted at mountain peasant culture, the spanking hinted at metropolitan gay tastes, nothing explicit, just hints and ambiguities. But when it became obvious that two of the men – standing closely face to face – were going to embrace one another, the audience became very quiet and alert. Soon another moment of discord arrived with whips, ropes, chain, and a bunch of Alpine cowbells dropping with repeated crashes to the floor.


Then back again to the violins accordion and double bass, yodelling and more syncopated body percussion. This time it seemed ridiculous when performed by these sweating, naked bodies. And more ridiculous too when two of them men started doing little vigorous jumps that had been carefully devised to keep their penises bouncing up and down in rhythm. Then at the end, the four men, instruments put aside, faced each other in an inward facing square, singing quietly in close harmony.

I don’t think that Sons of Sissy mocked Alpine folk culture. What might have seemed normal in a straightforward, traditional dance and music festival was definitely queered. In doing so, for me it posed questions. With the fortress that the European Shengen area is in danger of becoming, what is the place of these white male rituals that seem to have survived within traditional dance? Why do we hold our breath when we think we are about to see two naked, sweating men embrace? Why is it so painful when these male rituals end in discord, in men in physical or emotional pain?

Clearly Sons of Sissy is about masculinity, and sexuality. But I think it is also resonant because it draws attention to what, for some, might represent an uncontaminated source of European cultural identity. Sons of Sissy manages to make this source seem very strange indeed.



SPRING performing arts festival, Utrecht

I’m here till Sunday afternoon with some of our students who are part of the Spring Academy. I’m going to try and write some quick reviews of work while I’m here. In the early 1990s I was a freelance dance critic for the Yorkshire Post asked to write occasional reviews of performances which their main critic couldn’t cover.

In those days one had to phone in and dictate a review word by word, vocalising the punctuation, and do it by 10.45 pm. This was before mobile phones. Then I’d go to bed, wake early and go out to the corner shop, buy the paper and re-read my review. No time for much reflection, just fast and dirty, but with a set word limit – 200 words, sometimes 250, and once or twice the luxury of 300 words.

Here in Utrecht I’m not giving myself a word limit, but am going to try and write quickly soon after the performances and see how much I can cover.

The festival has invented some intriguing hashtags INCLUDING: #NEWYOUNG #EDGYDANCE #URBANSPACE #TENDERDANCE #TOUGHTHEATRE #NAKEDTRUTH which I can’t resist using.

festival website