Review: Fevered Sleep - Men & Girls Dance - South East Dance
The stage set is awash with newspapers, headlines and print words hanging by pages as a backdrop. Scrunches and bunches are used as props, to wrap around people, hide dancers altogether, making funny head pieces or sticking together to make a mat. It’s all happening as we enter the auditorium – five professional male dancers and a cast of nine girls aged 8-11 from Brighton & Hove and the surrounding areas are ripping, folding, placing and sticking.
My youngest daughter asks me why there’s a young man dancing in the middle of the collage-mat creation. “Maybe he’s practicing?” She says. The eldest one says “I think he’s doing some magic.” I weigh up the pros and cons of trying to explain how this is in fact, a metaphor for tabloid sensationalism. As David Harradine, Artistic Director of Fevered Sleep, describes: “The design is a direct response to the role of the print media in creating a negative perception of relationships between men and girls.“ The idea here being that they rip up the bad stuff and re-form it. The perception will be turned on its head and positivity will reign.
This is reflected choreographically – to the fun plinks and bounces of the Ting Tings, and then more serious, discordant strings. The kids are clearly in control with the movement. They motion for the men to sit, forming two clear lines, moving first, and allowing the men to follow. There are playful moments, playing tag and “boo!” thrill games with the bogeyman hiding underneath swathes of newspapers. The interactions are sweet, caring, and passive.
The show aims to “reclaim the rights of adults and children to be together, to play together and dance together”. I totally agree that as adults, we forget to play. We should do this more. And if this were an inclusive “play with your parents! Don’t be afraid of adults!” kind of show, I would be 100% supportive. But why is this piece limited only to men?
The girls onstage draw upon powers of observation to describe solo movement. Speaking into a microphone they say what they see and before long, some of the smaller girls are copying, trying to perform the same moves. It’s sweet, and funny. The description is purely physical with no context, no emotion. We bring our own context to what we see, and the idea, presumably, is that we reflect on what we’re watching and how that makes us feel, and how social conditioning – here, about the nature of play between men and young girls – has led our thought process on a specific path.
At this point I am trying my hardest to remain open-minded about what I am seeing and how it makes me feel. I have two young girls. I trust the dance community and given the chance I might be happy for them to take part in a piece of dance like this. There is no implication whatsoever that any of the girls here feel uncomfortable or that the intentions of the male dancers are anything other than creative. But my concern is the precedent that this breakdown of barriers sets for the world outside the safe, creative confines of the dance studio.
The next section focuses more on observation, between a male dancer and a young girl. He describes what he can see, again, with no context, in an extremely passive, non-threatening, safe-place kind of way. The description conveys finer details: “I can see her chest moving as she breathes, I can see her nostrils flaring.” I realise that I am clutching my daughters who are sat on my lap and next to me. I feel uncomfortable. The space here on the stage, within the safe confines of a studio audience, is sacred. We allow art to play out the narrative, that is the purpose, however my problem is that outside of this context, in the real world, if you saw a man sitting this close to a young girl, saying “I can see you looking at me” it would set alarm bells ringing. If my daughter came home and said the following of an older male” “I can see the veins in his arms/feel his heavy head/feel his hands on my legs/feel the weight of him/I can hear him deeply breathing.” I would have that man arrested. Even writing this now, I feel anxious. (That’s verbatim, by the way, all from the same section, so not taken out of context).
The pop music is back and blaring – the dancers are all having a great time onstage and no one seems confused. The girls seem to be in their element when they have steps to music to perform in unison. The playful duet sections between the girls and the men are fine and fun too – there’s lifts, trust work, balancing – and the interaction between the young girls and the men seems relaxed and natural. Girls learn to dance in close physical proximity with boys in pas de deux classes at ballet school, so the actual choreography and partner work to music isn’t problematic. But again, I come back to why it’s “men” as opposed to “adults” involved in this show. I agree with the principle of love and trust and play, and that want to encourage our children to be open and trusting. But, the way I see it is that outside of this safe place, the sad fact is that it’s not always sensible to be open and trusting, to everyone.
To some degree, this is nothing more than individual interpretation and my own personal projection. On the road out of Brighton to see the show we pass signs remembering the ‘Babes in the Woods, who are gone but not forgotten’. It’s a terrible, true story of two little girls murdered by older men. Perhaps this is overshadowing my experience, but it’s also highlighting exactly why I wouldn’t want my children to be learning that “playtime” with older men, particularly ones who are not part of their immediate family, is not OK. The more I think about it, the more it baffles me that this should be suggested as something we should be urging our daughters to do. Social conditioning happens for a reason. We develop instincts and take precautions that protect us, for very good reason. We teach this to our children, to protect them. In my own, personal opinion, the twee sense of utopian trust at play in Men & Girls Dance, is at best naïve, and at worst, dangerous.
Performance reviewed : October 27th, South East Dance, Brighton
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Katherine Colombus is a columnist, critic and editor. Twitter @Katiecolombus