If you’ve ever worked in an admin role you’ll understand the tedium of stapling, stacking and enveloping piles of paper. But it’s doubtful anyone has attempted to tackle their office boredom in quite the same way as the characters in Form. The piece is just one of a clutch of dance shows this festival exploring different modes of human behaviour – and what strange creatures we are. Three men, having suited and booted themselves for work in an elaborate choreography, embark on a dance of desk routines, scrunching paper and clowning around with disappearing stairs and lifts. There’s a lot of fun in the early parts of the show, showing the capacity of an idle mind to call on innovation, invention and imagination.
But soon things wander into more surreal territory, and we’re off to sea on an ocean of paper balls, travelling with our renegade wanderer, who has broken free from his colleagues to a blizzardy island where he builds a snowman for company. What starts off with the charm of Mr Bean ends up in a more fey vein. But it’s the commitment to clear physical storytelling in this young trio that stands out.
In Shoko Seki: Deadline, the reminders of human customs begin even before the show does. We are asked to take our shoes off and store them under our chairs – the reason becomes apparent later. Downstage is a table at which Seki sits, in a medical white coat and face mask, clawing and sweeping at an imaginary piano. Every so often the music stops for a tired breath and she slumps over the table then drags herself upright. Centre stage she performs a brief yearning, clutching dance before it’s back to the grind. It’s not hard to catch the drift of Seki’s piece, an exploration of the Japanese phenomenon of death through overwork. The uniform and mask are both gradually stripped away and we see her pushed around by invisible forces.
But then all of a sudden it’s break time, she tells us via a series of placards. We’re invited into a cross-legged circle and are given instruments. We begin to play, swapping the instruments between us, and she dances, responding playfully, curiously. The contrast, when the work kicks back in, feels brutal.
It’s not only humans that are under the microscope in company Fauna’s production of the same name. The group has chosen to explore courtship rituals through circus, and there’s a distinctly avian flavour to their movement. Curious ankle angles and knee twists when one performer is upside down make her feet look like inquisitive beaks. Frog postures and clinging balances create exotic shapes, while performers try to impress or sabotage each other.
What is exhilarating about Fauna is that the company uses circus skills as choreography, not mixing the two, not planting balances between passages of dance but creating dance from balances – in a similar way to Australian company Circa. When one performer swivels in a one-handed handstand or another clears a jagged valley of balance posts in a single leap the instinct is to clap, but it feels wrong here. Not that we should ever want to take the skill of acrobats for granted, but this choreographic approach uses the topsy-turvy, out-of-the-ordinary language of circus and makes it work for the piece’s themes rather than to show off. It’s the perfect code for analysing the strange behaviour of both humans and animals; clever and at the same time a pure joy to watch.
Peacocks Lobsters & Us also sets its sights on picking apart human courtship, but company Steelworks has stayed firmly in the box of stereotypes and makes no attempt to challenge tired, crass gender clichés. The woman needs to protect her eggs, we are told, while the man needs to spread his seed. So far so cod-biology.
But then we get to the more poisonous notions. A game show scorecard bleeps or buzzes when each participant loses or gains a point. Minus one to the woman for having a Durham education – too much education is not attractive in a woman. Plus one to the man for having been to Oxford – in men it is. Minus one to her for being a lawyer – women shouldn’t earn too much. Minus one to him for being a journalist – you get the gist. The tone is playful—it’s clearly not an instruction manual—but is not satirical enough to undermine the toxic idiocies writer Rebecca Steel is peddling. The woman is insecure about the size of her bottom while the man watches too much football.
There is a warm and more balanced ending, but the saving grace of this production is really the two performers – Robert Sharpe and Ruth Hales set about their roles with gusto. Hales, in particular, is a great physical comedian, elastic-mouthed, expressive, exuberant. Still, their co-credit for devising the piece means they don’t get off entirely scot-free.