Review: Arthur Pita - Nobody's Baby, The World’s Greatest Show - Greenwich Dance

Performance: 27 & 28 June 2014
Reviewed by Samantha Whitaker - Friday 27 June 2014

The World's Greatest Show - Arthur Pita. Photo: Roy Tan

In the US during the 1920s and ‘30s, a curious phenomenon took hold: dance marathons, where couples laid low by the Great Depression danced for thousands of hours in the hope of winning a life-changing cash prize. For 45 minutes of every hour, contestants had to remain in motion, followed by a 15-minute break. They ate, washed, shaved and even slept on the dancefloor, one partner supporting the other, and were subjected to additional endurance events, such as sprint races, to help whittle down the numbers. In the evenings, when spectator numbers were highest, they were expected to dance full-out to the live band and many developed signature songs or routines, which the audience rewarded by throwing coins.

As the hours turned into days, and the days into months (the record for the longest dance marathon is 5,152 hours; just over seven months), the event turned into a humiliating spectacle as the contestants went insane with intense fatigue – much to the delight of voyeuristic audiences. It’s this deeply disturbing, fascinating world that director and choreographer Arthur Pita draws us into with his new work The World’s Greatest Show, created in collaboration with DanceEast, The Royal Ballet and The Greenwich Dance & Trinity Laban Partnership. Premiering at Greenwich Dance, the cast of 11 dancers are joined by local performers of all ages. The gymnasium-style Borough Hall is decked out in grubby US flags, bunting and fairy lights, with a four-piece live jazz band on stage and the horseshoe dancefloor marked out with rope, the audience on all sides. The emcee, Daddy Fox, played by the multitalented Ewan Wardrop, welcomes us to the 1935 Knoxville Dance Marathon, and introduces the chief judge, the nurse and the competitors. He reads the rules: 45 minutes dancing followed by a 15 minute break, knees must not touch the floor, a shower is compulsory every 12 hours and men must remain clean shaven. The prize is $1,000.

Pita’s exquisite choreography is faithfully of its time and, as the competition begins, the couples perform jive, Charleston and Jitterbug moves with energy and enthusiasm. Keen to impress, Harper and Jones, played by Emma Kate Nelson and Benny Maslov, perform their ‘show piece’: an upbeat Fred-and-Ginger-style song and tap dance routine. Then, a chaotic heel-toe race eliminates two couples, while the swing round wipes out several more. Rest periods are marked by a wailing siren, leaving the emcee and band to entertain the crowd, while extended pauses signal leaps in time, the number of hours displayed on a board behind the band.

At 753 hours, four couples remain, all showing signs of extreme exhaustion – yet, when the music picks up, they come alive to perform their group piece, We’re in the money, their desperation to win overriding their fatigue. By the interval, they are in a trance-like state, swaying and shuffling around the floor as a pack, not stopping until the second half begins and they collapse on to camp beds for a few precious minutes.

Tensions run high and emotions are raw. Big purple bags hang under the women’s eyes, and all eight look haunted. A romance blossoms, two couples switch partners and at 1,872 hours there is a proposal, followed by a grotesque wedding ceremony and consummation, the couple shrouded in blankets. It’s absurd, but situations like this did happen – sometimes genuine, but mostly contrived by unscrupulous promoters and sponsors for the sake of the audience, who became invested in the competitors’ emotional journeys.

A lyrical contemporary dance solo by Amir Giles is a particularly poignant and moving interlude. Spinning and spiraling on a circular path, he stares out beyond the audience, his anguish palpable.

When the now bedraggled competitors return to the floor and the dancing, such as it is, becomes more desperate, it’s hard to believe they haven’t actually been there for 2,500 hours. Now, the final few begin to fall and eventually the winner, decided by a sprint race, is so deranged she can’t stop. Discarding her trophy dramatically, Bettina Carpi echoes Giles’ haunting lyrical solo, relentlessly circling the space.

The delicious combination of live music (some of which is original, composed by Frank Moon), period costumes, characterisation, choreography and Pita’s rigorous attention to detail come together to give us an intriguing insight into a largely unexplored, slightly harrowing and utterly compelling segment of dance history. Researching after the show, I realised that everything I saw on stage was based on real accounts of these events, which started out as innocent competitions but quickly became a form of public torture under the guise of ‘entertainment’.

Catch The World’s Greatest Show at Ipswich Corn Exchange on 11 and 12 July, or at the Paul Hamlyn Hall, Royal Opera House, on 27 July.

Samantha Whitaker is an editor and freelance writer. You’ll find her on Twitter @swhit1985

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