I was shocked recently to learn that dock leaves offer no scientifically proven relief to nettle stings. What I had taken as a given all my life was not ancient folkloric wisdom but yet another tale told by those mischievous ‘old wives.’ What we choose to believe depends on how it is sold to us. We’re told the dock is balm to the nettle’s barb; that the pink tablet works better than the blue.
In Clod Ensemble’s sparky and often sparkly new show, Placebo, dance itself is used to question how the brain can be tricked and our choices engineered. Dancers are instructed to perform varieties of movement; ’dancing for pleasure’ or ‘dancing the pain’, and we’re invited to select the dance we prefer. Our choices are immaterial; the choreography moves on, with further options, new questions, new ways of moving in space and around the space, new propositions set up to be knocked down. Questions and motifs recur: a phrase is dropped in and later developed, a helpful device in this text-heavy piece. The stage fizzes with activity as the seven dancers establish their personalities and movement styles. One duet suggests a session at the osteopath as an exuberant Valerie Ebuwa vibrates with energy to an African dance-hall beat. Does their dancing this way or that way make us feel any better, or worse?
The idea of the placebo is a properly chewy topic on which to base an hour’s dance and, whilst inherently playful – a section with a spotlit mouse en pointe in particular – it is rather overloaded with ideas and propositions. Co-directors Suzy Wilson (direction) and Paul Clark (music) build layers of text, voice, movement and music that at times battle against each other for supremacy. Hansjorg Schmidt’s elegant lighting design provides a very welcome visual map, yet I found myself listening so hard to a fascinating text about fake surgery that I realised I wasn’t watching the dance at all. Which is a shame, because the company is fabulous.
They are given great scope to flash their individual movement virtuosity and the choreography is quirky and flavoursome. It feels like they have had some agency here, and are comfortable when stepping out from the fourth wall to talk directly to us. Art School’s gender-neutral costumes alter shape and add some occasional pizzaz to a bare stage.
There are some beautiful musical moments, when feet fly to fiddles or a flute trills, but the rhythms are largely those of heartbeats or the voice, which denies the dance some pace. Theatrical moments stand out for their simplicity, as in the giving of a bunch of flowers in three different moods. The most lasting image is of fake Marilyn, in a fake satin dress, a fake hair wig, smoking a fake cigarette to the voice of Peggy Shaw (of Split Britches) reading her ‘My Lonely Lungs’ monologue. It makes the work sing.
I admire the ambition of Placebo and love it in pieces rather than as a whole. Commissioned by The Place, it is underpinned by huge amounts of interrogation and research with a wide constituency of people. A whole raft of activity runs alongside each performance about the placebo effect and how it is used in modern medicine. Perhaps a tighter, more theatrical focus would have made the show totally click. We are treated to a full throttle ensemble dance at the end. You could see it coming but it really did its job.
Thank you doctor, I feel so much better now.
Featured image (top); Clod Ensemble: Placebo. Photo Camilla Greenwell.
The autumn 2018 tour of Placebo continues with a run at The Place, 30 October to 10 November. See www.clodensemble.com/performance/placebo/
The tour of Placebo is accompanied by The Power of Placebo, a national programme of events that bring together scientists, artists, ethicists and anthropologists, to explore how our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, rituals and environments can affect our health for better or for worse.