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the club spectacular

Outlandish club stage shows may pull crowds, but are they killing atmosphere? Decca Aitkenhead just wants to dance
Over the 12 weeks of summer in Ibiza, camera crews turned up at a club called Manumission every single week bar one. MTV alone went four times. What they were filming made remarkable footage - dwarves dancing with jugglers, drag queens on trapeze swings, transvestite weddings in swimming pools, clowns peeling potatoes while sitting on toilets. This is spectacle clubbing, and - after the spartan Eighties warehouse and the plush Nineties corporate club - it looks like being the dance formula for the future.

The definition of dance clubs used to be their simplicity - a big empty space, a stage, a sound system and a DJ. Clubs like the Hacienda in Manchester were part of the Zeitgeist for a generation that effectively entertained itself, and aside from the odd live PA, was admirably self-sufficient. A decade on, Saturday nights at the Hacienda feature space aliens on stilts, fun fairs, fashion shows, elephant men and assorted freak shows. It is certainly working - two months ago, there was talk that the club might have to close; since the new night, "Freak", began, it has been crammed to capacity.

The history of modern spectacle clubbing can be charted back to early 1994, when brothers Mike and Andy Manumission began at a small club in Manchester. Like a West End play, it ran for just 16 weeks, and was the antithesis of DJ-led clubbing.

"We weren't promoters, we didn't know anything about music, but that wasn't what we were about. We just thought something was missing from clubs," explains Andy. What Manumission offered was a camp blaze of entertainments - a street procession through the city centre to a club where cabaret performers delivered surreal monologues, pantomime horses danced with clowns, and Elvis contests were staged. The night made Number One in the DJ magazine charts, and the brothers decamped to Ibiza.

Their success there has been astonishing. In a season where most big names struggled to break even, the brothers returned with enough profit not to have to work again until next summer. The club was full to its 8,000-capacity each week, and the spectacles attracted clubbers from all over the world.

A typical Manumission night would feature fire-eaters, magicians, jugglers, body painters, fireworks, drag queens hoisted 80ft in the air, and an endless array of surreal side acts - performers peeling potatoes, pretending to be trees, or going around picking up and appearing to polish bits of rubbish. The concept is fast being picked up back in Britain. The Hacienda has embraced it, and when Roger Michael, the promoter behind some of London's most successful nights, launched a new monthly night a fortnight ago called "Nada", spectacle was the defining feature. Clubbers were greeted with a Harley Davidson-lined red carpet, and were offered make-overs, fashion shows and complimentary ice cream. Where entertainment was once a side show - for example, the Ministry of Sound's Sony Playstation room - and music was the focus, the spectacle is now becoming the whole point. Whether this is to be welcomed, however, is debatable. Elaborate entertainments might suggest an admission of defeat - like inviting guests around, then switching on the TV - and a sign that nightclubs are failing in the simple task of getting people to dance.

"I came out of Manumission feeling like I'd seen an incredible show," commented one clubber, "but to be honest, I felt like a zombie. I'd just stood and stared all night with thousands of other people, and that feeling when the lights come up, and you look around at each other and know that you all made it happen together - well it just wasn't there. I felt like a bystander."

Is clubbing in danger of turning into a spectator sport? "The whole philosophy behind Manumission was to get people talking, get them interacting," argues Andy. "The reason we would have someone sat on a toilet peeling potatoes all night was because it gave people an excuse to nudge the person next to them and say, 'Have you seen that guy over there?' That may be all they say to each other - or they may go on and end up married."

At its most commendable, spectacle clubbing is a welcome retort to the cult of the star DJ. Paul Cons, the promoter behind "Freak" at the Hacienda, argues: "People want to be entertained. This is a reaction against the whole big-name DJ thing - we have our own DJs, and prefer to spend our money on giving something back to our customers. The DJ just isn't the be all and end all anymore."

Star DJs may be a royal rip off, but even when they fail to deliver on their highly priced promise, they seldom actually interfere with the night. The danger may be that while early pioneers of spectacle clubbing have a clear vision of what entertainments should achieve, the ensuing race to offer the biggest shows, the most amazing sights and the weirdest spectacles, will relegate the clubber to the role of awestruck onlooker.

"You can employ all the fire-eating jugglers you like," concedes Andy Manumission, "but unless there's a real concept of interaction, it's just going to be a nightclub with a juggler wandering around."