Review: Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre in The Bull at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 21 February - 3 March
Reviewed by Mariko Harano - Wednesday 28 February 2007

What a haunting, bleak yet powerfully moving finale to Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s’ The Bull. The stage floor is covered by ochre coloured mud, with rain pouring from the ceiling. All twelve performers, gazing straight at the audience, keep stomping the ground, howling to the accompaniment of intense pulsing rhythms that they themselves create by thumping pairs of drumsticks. Behind them, on the big white back screen, there is an image of the raging bull – the ultimate object of desire, the hunt for which leads to endless bloody feuds in this Irish epic from ancient times.

The Bull contains full male nudity, sexually explicit scenes, a plethora of foul language, violence, murder and a hint of contempt for religion. Although body movement remains one of the central tools to express the drama, the story telling is heavily language oriented. This is a theatrical piece with choreographed movements, stretching the boundary of the norm of dance performance in a provocative manner. It is no surprise that The Bull caused a huge controversy at its premier at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2005.

In addition to its subversive elements, what strikes the audience is the crude sensation that the whole production arouses, which is disturbing and, at the same time, titillating. The finely ploughed mud is a reminder of bull rings, ready to soak up blood and to be dug to make a grave. The recurrent use of water, cold and filthy, adds to the gloom as well as implying incessant human thirst (for survival and, in this drama, greed). Ironically, one of the gruesome murders is committed by drowning in the water. The unique blend of human vocals – poignant singing by the accomplished counter tenor (Angelo Smimmo), mimicking of animal bleating and a chorus of groaning by untrained raw voices – acoustically creates a sense of doom and terror. The vigorous percussive beats generated by various types of drums of ethnic origin and by the surfaces or bottoms of props scattered all over the stage, including wooden tables, tin buckets, iron shovels, axes and hatchets, arouses a distant memory of our primordial past when humans used to kill each other for survival. Like water, these metallic tools also become weapons of murder in this story.

The horror is, however, often counter-balanced by cheeky absurdity, such as performers mimicking animals and infants, a young and innocent girl scurrying with trailing trousers on her heels, a frustrated golfer throwing a tantrum at his poker-faced caddy and the dead body resurrecting to join the cliché chorus scene of a musical production. Strangely, most of these (what one thinks to be amiss) jokes work to divert from an otherwise utterly horrendous narrative, largely thanks to versatile performers who have strong stage personalities with comical flair. Then, the slapstick episodes are briskly killed off by cold-blooded violence again, which gives an even more chilling effect.

The performers’ dance expertise is immensely impressive. In this piece, the movements are usually employed to supplement, enhance and characterise spoken descriptions. The director, Michael Keegan-Dolan never inhibits himself in maximizing the use of 12 performers with varied talents whose movement vocabularies ranges from ballet, modern dance, martial arts, boxing, yoga, mime to, yes, Irish dance. Colin Dunne, who plays the role of Fergus, star dancer, as well as assuming the role of the narrator of the tale, showcases his dancing prowess with thunderous tapping steps, paying tribute to Irish tradition.

The Bull is a saga of human greed and its inevitable destructive aftermath – the folklore universally recounted in various versions (from the Indian epic, Mahabharata to Wagner‘s Der Ring des Niebelungen based on Nordic legend). The audience at the Barbican on the second evening of the production’s London run was transfixed by its dramatic intensity and integrity.

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