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Bare Bones in The 5 Man Show

Posted on October 19, 2010


To mark the fifth anniversary of Bare Bones, the contemporary dance group based at Birmingham’s Dance Exchange, the company have been touring the country with a new triple bill of works by Arthur Pita, Liam Steel, and artistic director David Massingham under the title The 5 Man Show. I caught the company on November 7 at the new Siobhan Davies Studios in Elephant and Castle, South East London towards the end of the tour.

Each piece has been devised for an ensemble of five excellent male dancers (Neb Abbott, River Carmalt, Andrew Cowan, Omar Gordon, with Matthew Winston replacing John Thompson at this performance), which can be performed in numerous adaptable venues around the country. With eye-catching images of semi-male nudity reproduced on the publicity material, and the promise that the production is “suitable for audiences aged 16yrs+ as some of the work contains strong language and themes of an adult nature” the audience at the Siobhan Davies Studios consisted, almost inevitably, of contemporary dance die-hards and a high proportion of gay men (some of whom, of course, were both).

At the Siobhan Davies Studios the works were performed “in the square”, with the audience placed on seats around the edges of the studio walls. In the event, the show promised more than it delivered, and did itself no favours by placing the best and most cohesive work, Arthur Pita’s …And Then Gone, at the beginning of the programme. In …And Then Gone five louche guys dressed in black suits enter the performing area one by one to a jazzy show tune. They leer at members of the audience, shout “hey!” to one another, strut, and caress parts of their bodies in a kind of sexualised come-on. Are they gigolos, catwalk models, or rent boys? – I wasn’t entirely sure. After teasing the audience in this way, the men exit and re-enter to a brassy composition by Leonard Bernstein, this time wearing nothing but black underpants, socks, suspenders, and black patent shoes. But now the men take on the persona of extravagant circus acrobats or burlesque performers, performing daring lifts and jumps, rolls on the floor and energetic runs around the stage. At the end, the men take off theirs shoes and throw them into the centre of the stage, as if to say “that’s all folks!”. The work is madcap and funny, with a hint of danger, as some of the routines are performed perilously close to members of the audience – some of whom, I am sure, appreciated the opportunity of an even closer look at the dancers.

The sombre centre of the evening was David Massingham’s With The Company We Keep, an oddly clumsy work consisting of a series of duets and ensembles where the dancers almost embrace, lift each other, move away and come together in ever changing partnerships. The maudlin music (Howard Skempton’s Lento), which, apparently, was not the inspiration for the dance, made the work seem earnest, doom laden, and dull.

Liam Steel’s Crazy Gary is a work that includes a spoken text by Gary Owen (extracts from Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco), and explores various themes of heterosexual masculinity in “lad’s” culture. The work is a cruel take on men trying to pick up girls at a disco, and there is an ever-present undercurrent of suppressed violence. But this piece has all the hallmarks of a DV8 production, especially of Enter Achilles, in which Steel was a memorable performer. The anger, the spectacularly acrobatic and dangerous looking lifts and jumps, and the almost pathetically weak characters of the men is a theme that has been explored by others before, far more successfully. And quite frankly, the dancers simply did not convince me as actors as they attempted to come to terms with the crudities of the spoken text.


Photograph: Johan Persson.


Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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