Life: Lost and found

Missing – Gecko @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 21 March 2015 (tickets)

There are few elements of the theatrical world that Civilian Theatre feels less qualified to talk about than cutting edge contemporary dance. Any reviewer who fits shows into their free time will Bar and admirers. Credit Robert Goldeneventually reach a point when you accept there is only so much they can actually watch and, as a result, an element of self-selection may creep into what press shows are attended.

So it is entirely possible that –  had I read the programme notes for Gecko’s Missing more  closely rather than be seduced by the intriguing image that accompanies it –the words ‘critically acclaimed physical dance company’ may have registered and I wouldn’t have crossed London to make it to the Battersea Arts Centre to watch their show.

And what a fool I would have been.

Missing is an intelligent, beautiful show that speaks volumes even to the choreographically illiterate. It may not have transformed my overall impressions about contemporary dance but it has shown that the form can be used to tell a story just as clearly as through the use of words.

The difference between Gecko and other shows I have seen is that the performance lacks the abstraction that can leave the inexperienced scratching their heads. Previously I have been unable to translate a plot synopsis to what I have been watching but here the narrative progression was entirely clear and the company seemed focussed on not losing its audience. Scenes took place within established settings and the movements between performers seemed structured to reflect traditional conversations but with the added advantage that dance allows of allowing the text and subtext of character motivations to interweave in their actions.

There was also little of the po-faced seriousness that has been a marked feature of my previous encounters with contemporary dance. Whilst the topic itself was treated seriously, they also found the humour that can be mined out of the awkwardness of relationships. The fracture lines that marked Lily’s marriage were played to great comic effect in a simple scene showing how they were unable to sit comfortably together watching a film, whilst the meeting of her parents became a slapstick encounter made more poignant with the knowledge of how it would eventually disintegrate.

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012 Apple Line, Smashed (courtesy Ryoko Uyama)

The art of juggling / the juggling of art

Smashed – Gandini Juggling @ Udderbelly, until 18 May 2014

The last time I was in the big purple cow of the Udderbelly was very late one night after a few too many beers at the Edinburgh festival. It consisted of men in thongs, scantily clad women doing things with ping pong balls and a chainsaw. Luckily, Smashed, running as part of the Udderbelly Festival on the Southbank, is a very different affair.

011 Female Distract, Smashed (courtesy Ryoko Uyama)

011 Female Distract, Smashed (courtesy Ryoko Uyama)

Performed by Gandini Juggling, a company formed over 20 years ago to fuse contemporary dance and mathematical notations in the field of juggling, Smashed is utterly (not udderly? – ED) delightful. It’s perhaps hard to imagine how an hour of juggling could keep you so entertained, but the constant variations in pace, theme, tempo and movement styles weave an intricate story between the performers and without a word you are embroiled in their loves, loses, competitions and seductions. Smashed falls somewhere between circus, contemporary dance, symbolist theatre and mime, but works hard to effortlessly fuse these strands to create a family friendly, entertaining and deeply likeable piece.

The company of 9 performers enter their apple strewn tea party all smiles and poised precision. But it is soon apparent that not all is going to go to plan, and with wit and extreme dexterity, proceedings literally start to fall apart. The speed and complexity with which the jugglers perform is astonishing, especially during the group routines, and the performers’ expressions and precise movement tell a playful story of gender politics and everyday power struggles.

The influence of Pina Bausch is clear to see throughout; short scenes investigating male and female interaction, scrutiny of bubbling personal tensions, intricate composition and concise choreography that is rich in symbolism, playful use of repetition and even the muted tones of the formal costumes and popular soundtrack. It’s a thoughtful tribute to her work.

Smashed is an entirely charming, intelligent and unusual performance, with a delicious spark of anarchy that is well suited to the Udderbelly cow. And there’s not a ping pong ball in site.


Watch some impressive jugglery-pokery action


This review was written by our roving review, Sarah Stewart. If you are interested in reviewing or writing articles for Civilian Theatre then please email 

The power of art: an always timely reminder

The Scottsboro Boys – Young Vic, until 21 December 2013 (Day Seats and Returns only)

One only needs the barest grasp of American history to understand the incendiary effect Kander & Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys was likely to have; a one sentence description ‘it is a musical about nine black men travelling The Scottsboro Boysthrough a 1930’s Alabamian town’ is enough to give significant pause.

Add in that it would take the form of a musical revue featuring a black minstrel show and a white southern host and one can begin to understand that The Scottsboro Boys is risky proposition, even by the standards of the team that brought Chicago, Cabaret and a musical interpretation of Manuel Puig’s modernist classic, Kiss of the Spider Woman to the stage.

When you have reinvented the musical, as they did with Chicago, and created a rival to Singing in the Rain as the greatest film musical, Cabaret, it is hard to imagine that the last blooming of creativity would be in the same league. This seems particularly true with the output of musical writers; one only needs to look at the careers of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim and even Andrew Lloyd-Webber to see a marked drop-off in the quality of their output as the years tick by.

However in the blend of tone and content that Kander & Ebb have brought to The Scottsboro Boys, they have managed to create a piece of theatre that, of all their work, comes closest to being seen as great art rather than great entertainment.

Technically it may not have the brilliance of Cabaret and it may not have the sheer enjoyment of a Fosse-choreographed Chicago, but what The Scottsboro Boys does, in a way not dissimilarto London Road, is to blow away the audience’s preconceptions and retains the force of a story that needs to be told being told in the only way that it can be. There is a coherence and understanding to the work, and a clear role, purpose and intent to the interplay of theatre, music and choreography which sits perfectly with characterisation and story.

The depressing thing is that The Scottsboro Boys was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won none. In the same year The Book of Mormon was nominated for 14 Tony Awards, winning nine. The interesting thing is that both aim to cover very similar ground despite their plots being a world apart. In a not shocking turn of events, it seems that those giving out the awards got it totally wrong.

Both aim to utilise the time-honoured construct of Juvenalian satire to address prejudices in society, and whilst Trey Stone and Matt Parker’s humour, honed after fourteen years of South Park, takes swings at the big topics it often seems to confuse the scatological for the satirical. At times its views are surprisingly conservative, which perhaps is a reflection of the need to sell those expensive tickets on Broadway to out-of-towners coming across from Middle America. After all there are only so many wise-cracking, elitist New York liberals to sell tickets too.

The ringmaster and his 'sidekicks'The Scottsboro Boys, on the other hand, is about as close as one can get to a modern example of this form of satire. It understands implicitly that the purpose of the technique is not to make the audience laugh but to provoke a reaction. Kander & Ebb are well aware of the power of humour to shock and use jokes like verbal hand grenades; the audience often confronted with the sight of two black men forced into playing the archetypal ‘uncle Tom’ roles for their entertainment and internally reconcile the fact that they have laughed at their ‘antics’. This is comedy operating at the very edge of tragedy, and it is all the more powerful for it.

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…and then he stuck it in my ear…

By a very large margin the biggest cultural event to hit London for quite some time was Dave St-Pierre’s show Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! at Sadler’s Wells. Critical debate over the piece has been raging amidst tales of mass walkouts and rapturous applause. The Telegraph certainly didn’t like it, and the The Guardians wasn’t exactly glowing in its praise. However, and rather surprisingly, it found a small amount of favour with that notoriously liberal institution; The Daily Mail.
Tales of dancers rampaging naked through the audience, with one critic memorably describing having the rather unfortunate sensation of having someone’s member thrust into their ear, reminds us that there are still things that are capable of shocking us on stage. And, as is often the case, it appears that nothing is guaranteed to make the British feel deeply uncomfortable than the human body laid bare in all its questionable glory. Particularly when it is taken off the stage and into the audience, smashing the conventional boundaries that exist between performers and the audience and forcing them to take a much more detailed interest in the subject than they might have expected.

St-Pierre continues the growing trend for challenging the conventional relationship that exists between actor and audience. Director’s are learning that by finding ways to draw the audience past the traditional barrier of the stage, you begin to discover new mechanisms for involving them more closely in the action. The interactiveness found in Punchdrunk’s stunning, if flawed, Duchess of Malfi, meant that there were moments where audience members were left feeling they had some power to change the direction of the narrative.

In Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! St-Pierre doesn’t just aim to break the conventions of traditionally staged dance, he means to create a piece that assumes a whole different compact with the audience. He wants the audience to view nakedness as a neutral state, one that should be value-free and without judgement. The male dancers who leap into the auditorium exist as state-of-nature innocents and the audience are challenged not to feel like voyeurs but to accept the dancers own child-like acceptance of their bodies. There is no doubt that St-Pierre blindsides the audience – they are helpless participants who must either sit there or walkout – but prior knowledge allows the opportunity to prepare for the assault on your preconceptions and the power of the piece exists in the tension of not knowing what could happen next.

He uses nakedness as a weapon to force the audience  to confront the idea that, rather than being the free-minded liberal individuals we like to think we are, in fact there are areas of our nature that we have marginalised. As a society, nakedness, whether as sexual imagery or just a neutral concept, has been pushed to the edges of what is acceptable, and there it remain; not discussed, not questioned and not seen. Whereas we can watch violence on TV and even practice gross violence in incredibly realised detail through computer games, it is much harder to see images of naked people in either format. There is virtually no nakedness, sexualised or otherwise, prior to the watershed, unless there is an ‘educational’ element to the show (such as The Sex Education Show on Channel 4) whereas soaps can contain storylines that often resolved by acts of rather extreme violence.

You can agree or disagree with the various codes of practice that has allowed a position like this to develop but the consequences can be seen in the reaction to Dave St-Pierre’s piece. Whilst the quality of the choreography apparently left a lot to be desired, it was hardly awful enough to cause such a large number of people to leave. The walkouts occurred because members of the audience were not ready to face such a direct assault on their values. And this was achieved through the immediacy of the piece, the result of taking the nakedness into the audience. In a time when it appears more and more difficult for people to shock and offend, it is interesting to see that one of the last remaining taboos is something that should be so innocent.

It is interesting to think about the different levels of acceptance to nudity and violence when thinking about the piece in contrast to the warmly-received but emotionally rather limp revival of Blasted at the Hammersmith Lyric earlier in the year. Sarah Kane was often regarded as a similar l’enfant terrible of her generation of playwrights; often baring her soul and life in front of her audience. However watching Blasted – with its procession-line of grotesque images- surrounded by rows and rows of drama students who were clearly going along mentally ticking of all the supposedly shocking moments of horror in knowing appreciation, it was not hard to feel rather let-down by the impact.  The play clearly suffers from its familiarity and much of its power is lost in knowing what is about to occur.

The same criticism can doubtless be  levelled at St-Pierre’s piece, after a while the audience will come knowing that they are about to witness an ‘event’ and with it will come a knowingness that can only detract from the power of the piece. The audience will not be challenged to confront their discomfit because they will understand the boundaries that are expected before it begins.

Perhaps that is the ultimate fate with all pieces that have the power to shock; ‘Hair’ famous nude scene must have been quite something when it was first staged but now it is thought of with some fondness of as a curious attempt to blend the hippie movement with musical theatre. However while it remains contemporary lets embrace David St-Pierre’s piece for going out of its way to force us to confront something that clearly can still cause us deep discomfort.