DANCE MARATHON IS ONE OF THE MOST COMPLEX, MOST SOPHISTICATED AND YET MOST DELIRIOUSLY ENJOYABLE PERFORMANCE WORKS I HAVE EXPERIENCED IN A LONG WHILE, AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THIS REVIEW HAS COME ABOUT WILL ALLOW ONLY THE MOST SUPERFICIAL SCRATCHING OF ITS SURFACE. THE NEED TO PRODUCE A WRITTEN RESPONSE TO A PERFORMANCE WORK BY THE FOLLOWING MORNING BECOMES A GREAT IMPEDIMENT TO ANALYSIS IF SUCH WORK REQUIRES YOU TO DANCE ALMOST NON-STOP FROM 8PM UNTIL MUCH PAST MIDNIGHT. BETWEEN MY RAW EXPERIENCE AND THE REFLECTION ON IT THERE HAS BEEN TIME ONLY FOR SOME VERY DEEP SLEEP.
Dance Marathon, staged by Canadian interdisciplinary theatre collective bluemouth inc, functions on at least two levels, which have not entirely come together in my mind. The first is referential. It is staged as a version of the dance marathons popular in the USA in the 1920s and the 1930s. Starting off as Charleston-era one-person (largely female) showcases, the willingness of young dancers to compete in endurance dancing, seeking quick fame, prompted presenters to organise increasingly more elaborate marathons, weaving variety acts and celebrity appearances through the event, introducing complex rules of elimination, theatricalising personal dramas of the contestants and attracting large audiences. Short breaks were introduced for the dancers, allowing the overall length of the marathon to stretch to days, weeks, months. During the Depression era, dance marathons became the bread and circuses of the time, reflecting the large amounts of free time the unemployed citizens of America now had—but also offering that intriguing combination of promises: faint traces of fame and glory, cash and prizes, on the one hand, and work, food and shelter for a short while, on the other.
We may not know any of this, however, and still experience Dance Marathon as a satisfactory reference to a popular form, because the similarity with contemporary reality television is so stark. We enter; we queue to register; we fill out a form waiving health risks; we get a number; we complete a small dance card with personal trivia that will become crucial for the unfolding of the show; we talk to each other in mass anticipation. Our Mistress of Ceremonies introduces the rules: feet moving at all times, no knees touching the floor. We are randomly coupled and, I may add, this is all very exciting: we do dance, with great abandon, the way I rarely see Melburnians dance. There is no audience, although we are being filmed. Do we notice or care? No. As we have heard from reality TV participants, nobody does.
The evening includes dance lessons, games, elimination rounds, celebrity guests, skills showcases (Bron Batten does a mean tap dance), prizes. The logic of elimination is entirely congruent with both reality TV and the pedagogical rules of making all children feel included in a game: very few eliminations in the first three quarters, then a large cull before the semi-finals (bringing the numbers down from 65 to 6); contestants are eliminated on mainly irrelevant grounds, with great attention to preserving the diversity of faces; and the overall winner is decided in a micro-cart race. It is the most inclusive format that an elimination game could possibly assume. Just like those real people on TV sets, smiling under a cloud of swirling confetti, so are we feeling extremely gratified to be participating in something as lovely as Dance Marathon.
However, as a first-hand immersive experience, Dance Marathon is the complete opposite of its own references: it is rewarding, pleasurable, even empowering. In a town of reluctant dancers, it was quite marvellous to see people with no clear dance skills throw themselves around next to highly trained professionals, the former unselfconscious, the latter unselfconsciously corny. Moments of provided entertainment quickly became something to participate in, rather than just watch — in a way similar to Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, the emphasis on the silly imbued the audience with great freedom to act. A reading of a sad poem prompted waves of expressive dance. Every so often, in the middle of a dance number, a choreographed formation would emerge, and we would move aside to observe better these bluemouth inc dancers whom we thought were here just to play. Overall, Dance Marathon worked like a truly wonderful party, in which the organised entertainment blended in perfectly with the fun we were able to have all by ourselves.
The question worth posing is, why? This close to the experience, the answer can be only vaguely attempted. Dance Marathon foregrounded the elements of game with rules and challenges that stripped away a whole layer of agency from the participant, paradoxically liberating us from having to make choices, thus making us also safe from ridicule or awkwardness. Freud elaborates on the transition from children’s games to adults’ jokes, the latter being essentially more self-protective and tendentious. A joke protects its own pleasure before the intellect. A game, on the other hand, is pure pleasure codified — the purpose is not to win, but to follow the rules. Once inside the girdle of the rules, we are probably as free as we can ever be. It makes one wonder about the extent to which the emergence of immersive theatre — essentially games for adults — responds to some deep need we have today for simple pleasures.
On the other hand, it was very rewarding to see a huge mix of people — from the dedicated contemporary dance audience to people coming straight from swing classes, to those just having a Saturday night out — utterly enjoying, and understanding, an event that questions the theatrical form to this degree. It reminds one of the fact that dance, of all the ‘highbrow’ art forms, has the strongest connection to the street and to play — a point not made often enough.
As Deleuze said somewhere, we do not have a body, we are a body. In other words, our body is not an object we put into practice, but the entity through which we experience the world. This is why Dance Marathon, however satisfying on the level of reference to bread and circuses, exists primarily as an extraordinary party, allowing us to dance with strangers, be blindfolded and drawn into complex choreographies, and even attempt a mass (unskilled) rendition of the dance sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey progressively accelerate on screen—and all with great pleasure.
A perfect end to Dance Massive.
Dance Massive: bluemouth Inc, Dance Marathon, performers, creators Clara Adams, Stephen O’Connell, Clayton Dean Smith, Cass Bugge, Lucy Simic, Cameron Davis, musicians Steve Charles, Peter Lubulwa, Eugene Ball, Carlo Barbaro. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 26; www.dancemassive.com.au
First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 19. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.
This is a dear review of mine, because it was written in an only-half-rational frame of mind. Dance Marathon – which I had enjoyed immensely – ended around 2am, and my deadline for the review was 12pm. I got home, fell asleep (I was exhausted and exhilarated), slept until about 9am, sat down and wrote this. The published article is not far from the first draft.
While I no longer think that Dance Marathon is the masterpiece I proclaim it to be here, many of its qualities are undeniably in the experience itself, not in the semiotic skeleton that remains in our minds afterwards. Theologically, I understand myself to be a secular Catholic; something akin to a secular Jew, with an appreciation of ritual and ceremony in and of themselves, not as a shortcut to an omniscient, omnipotent God. Dance Marathon seems to me to possess many of the best qualities of the religious liturgy, quite beside its own postmodern understanding of what it is. As you can hopefully read between these lines, it is undeniable that I had a rave time.