'May' at The Carriageworks

The main thing that attracted me to this production was the name of Tim Crouch behind it. A playwright for a dance show? I’ve seen several of Crouch’s shows and they’re always innovative and poetically written, but I had no idea he also had dance under his belt.

Teamed with Probe dance company, headed by Artistic Director Antonia Grove, this production fused dance, word and music. Grove also performed in the three-man piece as the woman who is visited by a social worker (Ben Duke). The audience follows their developing relationship as the social worker finds himself becoming closer and closer to what he terms his ‘client’. The oscillation between dance and theatre was at times quite hard to follow; I suppose it’s always the case with contemporary dance that as an audience member you try to extract meaning from the tone and style of the dance, but it seemed at times that the dance sequences weren’t rooted securely in the narrative, or it wasn’t clear what they were meant to mean.

©Probe Dance

Characterization came through particularly strong when we were introduced to the characters at the beginning of the show: gawky, uncomfortable movements encapsulated Duke’s shy character and inability to communicate with his patient. Duke, for me, was the real stand-out performer of the production: his dancing was completely in keeping with his character at all times and beautifully portrayed the gradual progression of their relationship. Grove, as Artistic Director of the company, and performing in her own show as both vocalist for the musical accompaniment and one of the main performers, seemed to want to use the opportunity to showcase her own varied talents. The backing music was well-integrated into the rest of the show, but the lyrics to the songs were grating. Despite the well-placed harmonies and haunting sound, the lyrics were repetitive and monosyllabic: distracting rather than contributing towards an atmosphere.

Grove’s character had less to do than Duke’s, due to the character’s antisocial behaviour and reluctance to speak, so much was conveyed through physicalisation. Her sullen, almost coquettish looks and hunched shoulders made her intriguing to watch; often in preferment to the main action on stage, but when she did speak, it was too deliberate, too intentionally dramatic and carefully stressed. Hers was the only character that didn’t come across quite as naturally as the others.

The relationship between the abused woman and the social worker is set within a larger context of a village town hall literary showing, which brought in the more comedic elements of the production. Scott Smith played the chairman of the meeting as well as providing the musical accompaniment for the show on a range of instruments. His character was the most amusing, with certain lines using the stereotype of the local village event to gain laughs: interrupting a poignant dance sequence to draw the raffle prize which no one claims, or saying carefully into the microphone after a harrowing monologue, ‘Would the owner of the Volvo with registration number […] please move it, as it’s blocking the entrance?’ By directly addressing us, we as the audience are treated as part of the village event (one almost expects another audience member to sheepishly get up from their seat to move the car), but also are expected (and happy) to sit and watch the narrative unfold through the social worker’s story that he reads out stumblingly from his notes.

The fusion of different theatrical styles gave the production a sense of incompleteness – individually, the dance, acting and music were all beautifully done, but didn’t come together to form a whole properly. The disjointed feel of the whole production could almost have been deliberate: simplicity and sparseness are the buzzwords of May. The set was mostly bare, and the audience’s attention was directed by the use of simple spotlights, and little else. The one moment where these elements came together in the show that I identified was near the end, when Duke and Grove stand opposite each other. Grove’s character is self-harming in front of her social worker: done entirely through mime and Crouch’s lyrical text, it was grotesque and painful to watch for the audience. The scene takes on a dreamlike mood, and her language becomes more poetic; you strive to work out what’s real and what’s in the imagination of Duke’s character. The woman describes the blood flowing out of her recent wound as chocolate, describing how it becomes thicker and sweeter, a sugary ooze, almost granulating in her arm. So lulled are you by the fantastical description that when she dips her fingers in her rich, sugary blood, you wince. The sequence reaches its climax when the man licks her fingers, affirming, ‘And we eat’. The following dance sequence could only be described as breathtaking – with that previous build-up of tension, the dance explodes onto the stage and this time, there is no mistaking what it symbolizes: the man and woman finally have sex, but instead of being disturbing and morally wrong, it’s truly beautiful.

That final moment confirmed exactly Grove’s artistic vision for the production, which was detailed in the programme: ‘I wanted to combine my love of dance, word and music and find ways that those elements can exist together effectively in harmony and discord’. Although sometimes more discordant than perhaps intended, May was a touchingly and intelligently performed work, and the biggest shame was that the audience, on the night I saw it, was as meagre as the set.

May is touring the country until the end of March. More details can be found here.

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