Author Archives: Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.

bluemouth inc.: Dance Marathon

bluemouth inc.: Dance Marathon

bluemouth inc.: Dance Marathon

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!

Ontroerend Goed: Audience

Ontroerend Goed have created a body of interactive/immersive theatre work that plays with the audience, investigating the borderlands occupied by ‘performer’ and ‘audience member’, and interrogating the role of audience. Their latest piece is called, simply, Audience. It was a given that this ongoing investigation was going to be at the heart of the piece.

The first ten or fifteen minutes are good. As we enter the space our coats and bags are taken off us. We find our seats; we sit down – as you do. A young woman comes out to tell us to turn off our mobiles. And to check that we’ve been to the bathroom. She says that if you aren’t used to going to the theatre, here’s a few tips: It’ll get dark. You’re expected to sit still and be quiet. If an actor speaks to you, you’re not expected to answer. Don’t eat crisps. Don’t cough.

She takes her seat in the auditorium and a young man with a camera comes onstage and stands in front of the giant screen taking up the whole back wall. He pans the camera over us, and the images loom large on the screen. He homes in on hands or feet, then zooms out to give a whole-group shot. He returns to focus on faces, and we get actors’ voiceovers imagining what people are thinking; ‘I want to be taken out of my comfort zone’ is one. Well, yes, it’s obvious that you will be.

There’s some footage taken earlier of us entering the space. A fashion show of actors parading in our coats and jackets is mildly amusing; the tipping out of handbags less so – nothing is done around that other than to just state the obvious or go for the lowest common denominator jokes: ‘Headache pills and condoms – optimistic!’

But there’s worse, much worse, to come. The mood switches from comedy-show low-level fun to a scene that is so unpleasant, so unnecessary, that I can hardly bring myself to describe it. The actor onstage asks the camera to rove around the audience, and it settles on a young woman, who is then insulted, harangued and harassed in the most unpleasant way imaginable. The camera remains on her, in close-up, throughout. Her face is enormous onscreen, her lip is trembling, her eyes blinking away the tears. The actor says that he will only stop if she agrees to ‘spread her legs for the camera’. Some audience members call out for this to stop, and one brave man pushes the camera away.

Of course, seeing how the audience will respond is the point of the exercise, but there is no excuse on earth for what has just happened. If she was a plant, or an audience-member briefed beforehand (and I am pretty sure she wasn’t either of those), then this is still inexcusable. If she wasn’t, it is more than inexcusable, it is despicable.

I struggle to see how the company do not realise that this is not a theatrical examination of abusive behaviour, it is abusive behaviour. It is not an ironic parody of sexual harassment, it is sexual harassment. If Ontroerend Goed want to highlight these distresses in our society, then they need to learn to be part of the solution, not to perpetuate the problems.

I suspect that Ontroerend Goed’s actors wouldn’t risk trying this sort of thing on a man – they may well get punched in the face! Women – especially young women – are an easy target, as they internalise violence directed at them. The young woman abused so unpleasantly at this show was not an actor; she did not enter into the contract that actors agree to when playing a role. We have no way of knowing what histories of violence and abuse anyone might carry with them, so this is an extremely dangerous and horrible game being played.

I have seen, and I have supported, much of this company’s work to date and I have defended many of the company’s previous controversial artistic decisions. But not this time. Audience deserves no support or defence. An enormous disappointment.

Ramesh Meyyappan: Snails and Ketchup

Ramesh Meyyappan: Snails and Ketchup

Ramesh Meyyappan: Snails and Ketchup

Snails and Ketchup is a wordless retelling of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, just one man (Ramesh Meyyappan) and his pianist (Toh Tze Chin) conjuring up the before-its-time tale of social protest and environmental concern as the son of a dysfunctional aristocratic family defies convention and protests against his lot by taking to a life lived in the trees. It is presented by Iron-Oxide and Universal Arts under the auspices of the Made in Scotland programme.

It’s a purely physical and visual performance, but it comes with a written synopsis given out to audience members before the start of the show, which set a small alarm bell ringing for me: surely a visual theatre performance should be able to tell its tale without this aid?

The problem is that the story is a convoluted one, and the performer/deviser has decided to focus strongly on linear narrative rather than working thematically and developing other aspects of the tale. Ramesh Meyyappan is a skilled performer, and I have read Calvino’s novella, but the narrative twists and turns rapidly, and it is (I have to confess, having spurned the synopsis) difficult to follow. The brutal father, nervous mother, mischievous twin sister, and ‘baron’ himself are all played by Ramesh, who has developed a personal style of illustrative mime that seems to have incorporated elements of signing and perhaps also of eurythmy. A concern for me was that this all keeps him frantically busy throughout and there is little stillness or space to breathe in the piece (ironically, as the baron’s stated aim in taking to the trees is to find a space where he can breathe) and for this audience member anyway, too much time was spent trying to work out what was happening rather than really relaxing into the show.

The piece is directed by circus/physical theatre stalwart Josette Bushell-Mingo, with aerial choreography by Jennifer Patterson and Lucy Deacon, so I had expectations of a high level of aerial circus work, particularly as on entering the venue we saw the stage set with a forest of ropes hanging down. However, this is not realised, and although the rope work that there is is clearly and competently presented, it is not an aerial performance to thrill. On the positive side, design, lighting and the cleverly-integrated video projection are all of a high quality, and add a strong visual dimension to the show. The live piano accompaniment is also very lovely, adding a silent film quality to the action.

Ultimately, Ramesh Meyyappan is a competent and skilled performer, but not (for me anyway) a riveting presence onstage, and I thus feel that the piece would be stronger if there were other performers to carry some of the burden of the storytelling. Snails and Ketchup is a work in development that has interesting aspects – but has a way to go yet.

Company XIV: Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures

Company XIV: Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures

Company XIV: Pinocchio: A Fantasy of Pleasures

Pleasure Island: ‘It’s right there in the name’. Venetian masks, raunchy dancers in basques (the boys too!), a boisterous MC in a leather biker jacket, gas masks and feathers, and a blue fairy caught by her wings… Sweet dreams, you bad, bad boys! Company XIV take Pinocchio’s trip to the debauched fantasyland where boys grow donkey ears as their starting point and central motif. Life’s a carousel, my friend, so come to the carousel. And this is some carousel – a merry-go-round of decadent delights.

Inspired by the films of Fellini (it shows!), American ensemble Company XIV bring a whole mix of forms to this sumptuous ‘Neo-Baroque’ production – Bob Fosse style jazz dance, modern ballet, classical opera, Commedia del’Arte, burlesque – while at the heart of the piece is the power of sexual desire and the pain of growing up.

The costumes are sumptuous and spectacular, the choreography lovely in an old-fashioned way (no bad thing), performed by an ensemble whose dance and performance skills are top-notch – and there’s even a live opera singer in the mix. She gives us arias and torch songs, whilst elsewhere harpsichords meet bump and grind blues or sentimental waltzes. There’s a strong element of kitsch and irony – a sequence to Elvis Presley’s ‘Wooden Heart’, for example. The play on puppetry and ‘the puppetesque’ is very cleverly done – the show-within-the-show (where Pinocchio becomes a marionette!) is done very nicely, and extended into a gorgeous sequence with Pinocchio tied up with red ribbons and pulled hither and thither. There’s a great visual aesthetic, and I enjoy the blue-red theme that is developed throughout, with the Blue Fairy (Pinocchio’s heart’s desire) in one corner; and little Pinocchio, all bleeding red heart, in the other.

Our showman MC holds the whole thing together with rhyming couplets and raucous songs, and it all romps along very merrily. A good night’s entertainment of a high level – naughty but nice!

This way to Toyland, everybody…

NeTTheatre: Turandot ¦ Photo: Fourtheye Photography

NeTTheatre: Turandot

NeTTheatre: Turandot ¦ Photo: Fourtheye Photography

None shall sleep, not if Poland’s NeTTheatre have anything to do with it… Leather queens in bullet belts and kitten heels belting out karaoke versions of ‘Nessun Dorma’; a bank of Barbie dolls mounted on table football rods and real-life Barbie-doll-girls dancing disjointed dances; the incessant looping of snatches of Turandot’s score; a mannequin hung by its neck from the ceiling; a woman caged under a kitchen table; a kitsch 70s-style home organ belting out opera faves, blood-red washes of light, armies of miniature figures, Chinese lanterns and lacquers, projections of flock wallpaper everywhere – and always the silent screams of those with no voice. ‘If I could write one word on a piece of paper it would be “shame’’.’

It’s a nightmare. A bloody mess. A brilliant bloody mess. A wonderful postmodern deconstruction of Puccini’s last opera, a story of the Chinese princess Turandot (who tells riddles and puts to death suitors who cannot solve them), mulched in with the tragic real life story of the throat cancer the composer developed whilst trying to finish this last major work of his life, and the terrible treatments he endured (we learn at one point that he has his lips ‘bound together’). All of this is informed by the fact that this work has been devised in collaboration with an ensemble of people with and without hearing and speaking disabilities. To hear, to speak, to voice, to lose voice, to be denied voice… what these mean, literally and metaphorically, are explored throughout the piece. The meaning and value of ‘silence’ is explored: enormous close-ups of silent screaming faces give way to words spoken haltingly: ‘When I am silent I give him pure love.’ Just to add to the lunacy, William Burroughs’ hallucinogenic masterpiece Naked Lunch also supplies meat for this feast…

Director, writer, sound designer – auteur I suppose best describes him – Pawel Passini uses every trick in the theatrical book: live and recorded music (arias heard on scratchy recordings, the live singing onstage, looped samples, easy-listening organ playing), puppetry of many scales, film (including some horribly compelling footage of young Chinese gymnasts being tested to the limits: Turandot’s Chinese themes and tropes are another element to the piece), cabaret pastiche, Kantor-esque stepping out of and observation of the action by ‘silent’ (in myriad senses of that word) witnesses.

Bold and brave and beautiful; a show I’m drawn to see more than one time. One of the most interesting and inspiring shows at this year’s Fringe. I think I’ll have to go back for more; there is so much to experience and unravel…