Fevered Sleep, Men & Girls Dance, The Place, April 13
I came away from Fevered Sleep’s Men & Girls Dance at The Place with an empty feeling that had started during the performance; for a theatrical presentation this means a failure. The empty feeling developed into a sense of annoyance, all the more vexing as there was nothing specific I could identify in the show that supported it and it was in marked contrast to the upbeat vibe of an audience who evidently loved it.
The idea for Men & Girls Dance started innocently enough when the directors of Fevered Sleep, Sam Butler and David Harradine, were auditioning trained male dancers for a project the day after seeing young girls performing in an end-of-term dance school show. Wondering what they might produce by bringing two such groups together, they explored the social and political implications of men and girls in our society. As Butler and Harradine explain in their newspaper of a program, ‘Men & Girls Dance hopes to offer provocations about, and ultimately solutions to, what we feel has fast become a problem around the culture of adults, and especially male adults, just being with children today.’ ‘We want people to be troubled’, says Butler elsewhere, to which Harradine adds, ‘To be troubled by witnessing playful, tender relationships. Why should that be troubling? But it is…’
The common language between men and girls is play, and this is where the production works best. The set is covered in newspaper pages, crumpled up and heaped at the back or carefully taped together in sheets like a quilt in the centre of the floor. Leaving aside the metaphorical significance of media coverage as floor coverage, the games played in this arena draw me into the engagement between the nine girls and the five men (including a brilliant entrance for Robert Clark who emerges from the crumpled newspapers at the back, dressed in…crumpled newspaper) with a theatrical sophistication that stands on its own. But beyond this delightful play, the choreographic ideas have the drawn-out quality of blandness with a giggly smile.
Part of the popularity of Men & Girls Dance undoubtedly has to do with the young girls who are auditioned locally wherever performances take place. In London the girls are Pebbles Doughty-White, Molly Beasley-Martin, Maya Demetriou, Belesther Huberson-Abie, Chadni Miah, Neve Seekings, Momoka Taniguchi-Warren, Amber Worboys Sayers and Rania Yarde. It must be a wonderful and nerve-wracking experience for them: wonderful to be performing with these five men (Clark, Kip Johnson, Luke Crook, Nick Lawson and Matthew Morris) and nerve-wracking to be learning both text and choreography to performance level in a short space of time. They do it brilliantly.
The other draw for Men & Girls Dance is that it’s a project whose premise you can’t easily reject: to create ‘a public space which allows play, tenderness, trust, empathy and love’ between men and girls. One can understand, for example, why the Wellcome Trust would want to support it and how the hype around the show generates ticket sales (the run at The Place has 9 performances, up to and including Saturday April 22). But a theatrical performance is more than its premise, and my empty feeling perhaps has its origin in the distance between the proposal and its manifestation. Men & Girls Dance treats a subject that is both light and dark, but its presentation on stage is only light; so where is the provocation, and to whom might it be addressed? It seems the only troubling thing about Men & Girls Dance is the absence of anything troubling. It’s a show the girls in their intuitively playful way might have choreographed and then asked the adults to formulate emotionally and intellectually. While the parallel social implications may well be contentious — the 64 pages of program text are an indication of how sensitive the subject can be — the choreographic manifestation in a controlled public space where the men need DBS checks to perform loses all pretensions of being provocative.
Could it be that an unintended consequence of current written funding applications is that what ticks the right boxes is the social significance and implications of a proposal rather than the quality of the performance which, at the point of application, may not yet have been created? Fevered Sleep has written a carefully worded newspaper about the subject of men and girls to accompany the show, offers discussions on the subject within each community where it plays and has garnered plaudits for broaching the subject — all valid — but it feels as if the company has sold us the funding application rather than the show.