They shoot horses, don’t they? In America during the depression era of the 1930s, young men and women took part in dance marathons, which gave a cash prize to the last pair standing after – well, it could sometimes be weeks rather than hours or days! Canadian experimental theatre company Bluemouth inc.’s Dance Marathon is a mere four hours: an interactive performance event that plays with and parodies the dance marathon model.
So, we are all gathered in the foyer of the Traverse, and we have been issued with numbers to wear on our chests. I’m number 136. Everyone is chatting excitedly and wondering what’s going to happen. I’m on my own and wishing I had a dance partner with me. But never fear, for bluemouth are here, and once we’ve been led off to a location around the corner we find ourselves in a large hall with hundreds of pairs of dance-instruction feet marked on the floor, and – you’ve guessed it – we have to go and find our own feet. So, come in number 135 – a nice young man from Edinburgh called Euan. We stand facing each other a little nervously, do the introductions thing, and meanwhile the Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening, resplendent in a sassy red shirt and black trews topped with a titfer, sits on a plinth musing on the situation around the room: ‘So maybe you came here tonight on a first date and that lovely blonde girl is now on the other side of the room gazing into someone else’s eyes…’ I wonder if Euan is wondering how come he’s ended up with someone old enough to be his mother… But now the first dance track has started (The Bee Gees, fromSaturday Night Fever) and off we go in a bit of freestyle. As we warm up and take off on the dancefloor, it’s clear that we both love dancing and aren’t the shy retiring types, so we grin happily at each other. And so it goes… there’s waltzing and slow dancing and charlestoning and swing-dancing, courtesy of the live jazz band – but mostly there’s disco classics on the decks, the sort of tracks that everyone loves to dance to: Michael Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean’, KC and the Sunshine Band, Chic’s ‘Le Freak’. There’s a constant flow of games and challenges: learn the Madison, start a Snowball dance, do a Derby round the dancefloor. People are eliminated, sometimes for slacking but often completely randomly after being thrown a general knowledge question. When eliminated, nothing too dreadful happens to them: they have their numbers taken off, but can stay in the dance. They are interviewed on camera, Big Brother style, and given gift tokens donated by local businesses as a consolation. And there are ‘second chance dances’ where, if they want to, they can try to win a number back. Everyone’s a winner!
But for the competitively minded, there is the opportunity for glory. Euan and I are acting like we don’t care, but are pretty pleased when we make it to the semi-final. The last eight, out of all these people! Wow! Unfortunately our Hawaiian Hula dance is deemed not quite there, although we have the audience on our side and ‘you were robbed’ is said more than once. Oh the pain of losing at the last hurdle! But when I see what the final involves – the last two couples pitted against each other in a kind of go-kart race – I’m pretty glad it’s not us. It all ends with one last dance, a great big love-in to Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ – what else could it be?
What makes Dance Marathon such a rip-roaring success is the care and attention they’ve paid to the dynamics of the evening and the management of the audience-cum-participants. The show has a lovely rhythm and pace, with plants (company members from bluemouth plus a dozen or more Edinburgh-based dancers) interspersed throughout the crowd and ‘giving themselves away’ in incremental steps, from just being better at the taught dance routines than anyone else, to creating small ensemble interventions, to performing a number of solo performances or interactions (spoken or danced) that reflect on loneliness, partnership, ambition, and following your heart’s desire. The evening is held together by our MC, charismatic singer and dancer Lady Jane, and a flag-waving roller-blading referee.
Perfectly paced, thoroughly thought through, a delight and a privilege to witness and take part in. Top class entertainment that is simultaneously a gentle investigation of issues of intimacy, shyness, bravado, and competition. A true theatre of the people!