Review: Club Cultures - Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Performance: 27 & 28 March 2015
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Tuesday 31 March 2015

East London Dance - 'Club Life', part of 'Club Cultures' at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: Carmen Klammer

Performance reviewed: 27 March

A timely revisiting of club culture and its impact on current dance practice was presented by East London Dance at Theatre Royal Stratford East to kick start their new season. At first it seemed incongruous to be sitting contained in the compact, Victorian theatre – a museum piece of a building – to watch the history of club dance and music unfold from the 1970s to the present, but given the huge variety of shows which have taken place there over its long history – and the active involvement of an enthusiastic local community, it was soon appeared entirely appropriate.

The first half of the evening was a literal histography of club culture and its defining eras such as Northern Soul, Disco, Funk, Hip Hop (old school and new) and House, brought to life through dazzling performances by teams of dancers and musicians from, amongst others, Boadicea Ladies, Soul Mavericks, Birdgang and Indahouse. Club Life uses the vital forces of dance director Nathan ‘Neo’ Gordon (Flawless Entertainment) and musical director Jack Baker who capture the essence of each style in this thirty minute tour.

The less familiar to me and consequently the most fascinating is the Northern Soul section danced by Lauren Fitzpatrick and Madeleine Gould – quick foot work performed with a relaxed upper body but interjected with athletic back drops, karate kicks and spins. In Northern Soul dancing, there is a de-emphasis on the body in contrast to Disco or Hip Hop, in which the body is framed through Diva- esque gestures and posturing. Costuming too, an integral part of club culture, further deflects away from gender or sexuality in Northern Soul’s button up shirts and loose trousers. Along with the music, the semiotic reading of the dancing body defines each club cultural trend with visual precision. In House music, the return to a casual body (conveyed through the fluid, free flowing movement and the loose clothing) contrasts with the commodified body of the Disco Divas through glitzy make-up, body hugging costume and voguing or the strutting attitude of the Hip Hop B boys and girls.

Club Life is intriguing in how it illuminates the juxtapositions of different styles as well as the similarities, such as the mellowness of Northern Soul music, the frenetic, up-beat Disco and the intense stuttering of Hip Hop’s popping and locking. While Club Life is monopolized rather too much by Hip Hop, it is a delightful memory jogger and a suitable warm-up for Vicki Igbokwe’s immersive piece Our Mighty Groove.

If you were frustrated about being constrained by your seat and not allowed to dance, this was about to change. Our Mighty Groove transforms the theatre stage into a club and we enter to muted, pulsing club music and lighting. Igbokwe and her four women dancers each embody a club character: there’s a podium dancer, the sexually extrovert red-head in shorts and thigh length boots; the cold, voguing fashion model who demands space around her; the ditzy, eager-to-please girl who wants to learn how to dance and the casually dressed girls who are there to immerse themselves in the dancing experience. They’re already in the house, each doing their own thing – dancing, chatting about people, laughing, searching for each other in the crowd and interacting with audience members.

We vaguely follow them, not sure who we should be watching or what we’re expected to do: should we just lose ourselves in the music and dance like some people or should we be still spectators? Isn’t clubbing always a mixture of participation and spectatorship?

Two dancing bouncers are present just in case we get too carried away. There’s a sense of deferred gratification, a holding back on the dance action by the performers which leads to a curious tension and anticipation.

Finally when the space is charged and we’ve relaxed into being more generous participators the dancers take command of the space and dance flat out together in a circle of molten energy. It’s an incredible mish-mash of styles – Breaking, Voguing, Disco, African, Dance Hall, Lindy- Hop.

Igbokwe asks many interesting question in her clubby investigations, which have come out of her own research into New York club culture. She also takes on the fantastically difficult challenge of engaging intimately with her audience, which on Friday, although it comprised of some groovy people, nevertheless at times seemed confused and bewildered. Igbokwe blurs the boundaries between spectatorship and performance (there will always be some resistance to this), but also taps into some of the immense pleasures of the clubland experience, as well as its many insecurities. Someone who is shaking up audiences in this manner is really one to watch out for.

Catch Uchenna Dance’s Our Mighty Groove at Greenwich Dance,
Saturday 11 April.

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photo: Carmen Klammer

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