Technicolour Dream

Feature in Issue 15-3 | Autumn 2003

UK showcase festivals aim to bring the Best of British to the attention of promoters. The Decibel showcase of culturally diverse work took place in Manchester City Centre in May 2003. Edward Taylor reports…

Decibel was organised by X-Trax (previously responsible for five years of extremely successful street arts showcases) in collaboration with the Arts Council of England.

The work on offer was extremely varied and much of it strayed outside even Total Theatre Magazine’s wide brief. It took place in theatres in Manchester city centre and there was a street arts day at the Lowry Centre.

Of the five indoor shows I saw, the show by Theatre of Darkness was such a work-in-progress that you wondered how it had sneaked past the vetting procedures I assume were in place. Another two – Rashomon by Yellow Earth and My husband is a spaceman by Kazuko Hohki are shows that have been around a while and have both previously been reviewed in Total Theatre – I would like to reiterate however that Kazuko’s show is a little gem and not to be missed. The Yellow Earth show was not the full version and seemed a little over-egged in its shorter state.

Shadow Songs was an installation created by Suki Chan for small groups of people. You were asked to keep as quiet as possible as you entered the darkened auditorium. The space contained a big screen at the back, a crescent shape of gauze hanging in front of it, clusters of Chinese lanterns and a spiral of paper butterflies. You could hear a pin drop. With the use of silhouette, stunning video projections which at first seemed to be still photographs and live performance, the piece played with shifting representation. Everything was extremely clearly presented but at the same time it had a haunting, evasive quality helped in no small way by the beautiful singing of Seaming To and the cello playing of Semay Wu (both better known for their work with Homelife).

Company Malakhi presented Hip Hop story, a personal response to hip-hop through dance, text, rap, film and, of course, music. Everyone loves watching good dancing and this show had plenty of that. The choreography built on familiar breakdance moves and the DJ ran through some stunning scratching and mixing skills. Both these elements really got the crowd going. The DJ allowed you to remember how instrumental James Brown’s drummer was in the development of the music. The rapping showed off verbal wit reminiscent of Mohammed Ali and the text followed the stop/start rhythms of scratching. It demonstrated what a potent force hip hop can be and how gangsta rap and bland posturing are not the whole story. If anything the overall flow of the show was a bit too much stop/start but you soon forgot that when the dancers got into their stride.

The street arts day took place in the piazza of the Lowry Centre and attracted a big crowd. The strong wind played havoc with everything. Music and dance predominated. There’s a thesis waiting to be written about how culturally diverse outdoor work tends to be traditional in flavour (the Black Eagles with their effortlessly effervescent acrobatic show or Akaar puppets from Rajasthan with their delightful marionette show) and hasn’t developed in the way European work has – but this isn’t the place to do that. This isn’t a criticism and it may seem a bit blinkered on my behalf (I’ll be more than happy to stand corrected) but the organisers admitted that they too had found it hard to find groups to fit the bill.

Emergency Exit’s Runga Rung – a mix of Bollywood, Caribbean and British Asian imagery was perhaps the only example of outdoor work which reflected a multicultural approach. It has two parts – a noisy parade and an arena show at the end. The parade is like a mobile version of one of those stores that sells novelty lights and electronic gadgets – it has a wonderful kitsch, flash, slightly tasteless quality to it. I can imagine the mix of in your face stilted characters and Caribbean carnival figures with a mobile cinema, dancers, a mechanised elephant, red flares and a blaring PA would be very atmospheric in small streets with the audience following on and lining the way. At the Lowry however they just went round the building which was their only option but which wasn’t the most exciting experience. The set-up for the finale was nearby and most people chose to remain there so as not to lose their place. For me, the finale was a disappointment. It amounted to a collection of effects with no real dramatic or theatrical line running through it. The loud PA system ruled out any light or shade in the performance and flattened out what you were supposed to concentrate on.

This weekend of performance showcases was not for the general public. It consisted of national and international programmers being bussed around from venue to venue. The success of the weekend, I imagine, will be judged on how much work each group receives in the future!

Decibel runs until March 2004. For more info, check out the website: www.decibel-db.org