Mark Bruce Company, Wilton's Music Hall, London
Ballroom of Joys and Sorrows, Palace Theatre, Watford
If you see a wilder hour on a British stage this year, I'll eat his hat
Sunday 03 June 2012
One is tempted to call Mark Bruce a master of the unexpected, but that wouldn't be entirely true. A Mark Bruce Company event is a savage combustion of loud music and eclectic movement in which certain elements can be relied on. Smoke. Darkness. Heavy rock. And an anarchic smear of grunge.
Bruce, then (who happens to be the son of veteran choreographer Christopher), is no mere chip off the block. And Made In Heaven, his latest touring offering, is like no piece of dance theatre this critic has seen. To say that it has a story (sort of) and characters (sort of) and a smattering of speech makes it sound like a musical. Perish the thought. This is the most off-the-leash 70 minutes you are likely to witness on a British stage, complete with murder, incest, crooked cops, and a life-size articulated shark.
To begin with, there's a crescendo: a tingling, eardrum-threatening crescendo on a single electric guitar chord that continues for 10 minutes while a young girl in a gingham frock lies asleep by the hull of a boat. Her dream – both heavenly and hellish – is what follows, to a soundtrack that segues from Debussy's Clair de Lune to chain-gang songs to Leonard Cohen to punk. Only briefly does the dream alight on romantic bliss, in a smug duet with a sailor on shore leave. After that it's all downhill into a fragmented nightmare about a trigger-happy Mississippi cop who guards a paradise island of handcuffed female convicts – which you could read, if you felt so inclined, as the girl's virginity.
Along the way she witnesses the brutal murder of a mermaid (a cracker of a scene, complete with billowing silk waves and a sawn-off tail resembling a hunk of tuna steak), and a failed attempt to escape the island by speedboat (cue the hungry shark, courtesy of puppeteers Pickled Image). In its craziness, of course, this is just how real dreams feel, comedy and horror mingling in a way that seems normal to the dreamer in the moment, highbrow and trash colliding too.
If it's hard to pigeonhole Bruce's maverick vision (Tarantino meets the Coens' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? meets Hawaii Five-O), it's even harder to pin down his choreographic style, which reinvents itself every five minutes, from decorous ballet to voodoo juddering to a cancan for foxy female cops. A final party rumba sets the seal on this unusual hybrid, complete with savage jolts, soft porn and belly laughs.
On paper, Ballroom of Joys and Sorrows looked to be aiming at similar territory, charting "a journey of being alive, of discovery and growth, of transition from child to adult" in song and dance. Directed and choreographed by Kate Flatt (choreographer of Les Misérables) it incorporated professional dancer-actors and a folk band with a cast of 50 local people.
Projects involving amateurs present a critical conundrum. Should their status confer immunity from harsh judgement? Or, given that PRs have been hired to drum up critical interest, should they expect equal treatment with the pros? In this case, my problem lay with the concept rather than with its delivery. Lord knows there have been some great pieces of physical theatre created on untrained bodies. Take Pina Bausch's Kontakthof, in which she applied her strictest practice to a bunch of over-60s from a single German town.
In Ballroom, though, there's too clear a division between amateur and pro. The latter do the singing and the dancing; the rest stand around and mug. At one point they're allowed to walk holding a sheet on a stick – a fleet of ships! Once, just once, they join in a chorus. To judge by their intense focus, these people would do anything Kate Flatt suggested. She simply needed some better ideas and to ask of her amateurs much, much more.
Mark Bruce Co (www.markbruce company.com), touring till Jul; 'Ballroom ...', Cecil Sharp House, London (0844 888 9991), 7 Jun
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