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Dance Marathon - bluemouth inc Cut A Rug

At various times over the last three years, in Canada, Australia,
America and Ireland, a very special dance has been set in motion.
Entire rooms full of revellers have launched into spontaneous displays
of the alphabet-shaped choreography that accompanies evergreen 1970s
disco smash, Y.M.C.A. This song, made famous by The Village People, a
group of young men extravagantly dressed up as various macho
archetypes, may be a staple of late-night clubland cheese-fests across
the globe anyway, but this is different. The extrovert activity
described above exploded out of Dance Marathon, a four-hour
participatory endurance test cum endorphin enhancing Dionysian rite cum
life-changing piece of social engineering devised by the Toronto and
New York-based experiential theatre explorers, bluemouth inc.

As Dance Marathon shimmies into Edinburgh for a limited run as part of
the Traverse Theatre's programme, the show has has proved so apparently
transformative for its audience that playwright David Greig, no slouch
himself in the creative stakes, was moved to describe it as “a new
paradigm in performance.” Greig went on to highlight the piece's final
moments as “one of the most beautiful and moving things I have ever
seen in a theatrical performance.” High praise indeed for a show in
which the audience effectively do much of the work, but what is it that
makes Dance Marathon so special?

“It's the taking part,” according to New York-based Stephen O'Connell,
one of the bluemouth collective's core team. “People are disappointed
now if you ask them to sit in a dark room and be passive. But there's
something there about the dance itself, and how it affects our bodies.
In our twenties we're going to clubs and dancing, and we're in our
bodies a lot, but something happens when we get to a certain age. Now,
for me, outside of doing it professionally, the only chance I get to
dance is at weddings. Dancing can transcend us, but we can get
disconnected from it, but when you get back in touch with it, amazing
things happen.”

O'Connell points to Dance Marathon's YMCA moment for proof.

“That moment is so silly and so ridiculous,” he says, “yet everybody
does it without thinking, and there's something exciting about that
euphoric sense of communal transcendence. It's really quite profound to
watch.”

Dance Marathon, then, is an epic example of the trend for a more
immersive kind of theatre that puts the audience close enough to the
action to become a part of it. Both Ontroerend Goed's Audience and
Adrian Howells' May I Have The Pleasure..? are one to one examples of
this, and bluemouth cite Punchdrunk's labyrinthine exercises in
interactive theatre as well as Forced Entertainment's own endurance
tests as influences.

Beyond such avant-garde peers, Dance Marathon's roots go back to the
real life competitive endurance tests of the 1920s and 1930s American
recession era. These events could often go on for days or even weeks,
as documented in Sidney Pollack's 1969 film, They Shoot Horses, Don't
They, based on dance marathon bouncer Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the
same name, they provided a roof and food for down-at-heel entertainers
as much as others on the skids. Where those original dance marathons
also provided titillatory spectacle for audiences in need of kicks,
bluemouth's take on things is much more democratic, inclusive and
feelgood in nature.

“The beauty of a dance marathon is that it's really inclusive,”
explains singer and performer Ciara Adams, another bluemouth core
member based in Toronto. “You won't ever be singled out as an
individual, and we don't want to make anyone fell uncomfortable. It's
more about the entire group in that we're trying to make an instant
community. We won't ever know everyone's experience, but everyone has a
story and seems changed in some way.”

Originally founded in Montreal, since bluemouth inc decamped to Toronto
in 2000, the five-core collective have produced multi-discipline
site-specific locations that have included a network of hotel rooms and
a Canadian wood. The relationship between performer and audience has
been crucial to the company's ongoing line of enquiry. Dance Marathon,
however, was a major leap into the unknown.

“We'd done a show in which the audience took part in a softball game,”
O'Connell explains, “and having the audience become participants was a
significant shift in our thinking. At first we thought we might do a
twenty-four hour show, and that developed into early workshops for
Dance Marathon, which we invited twenty friends to come in while we
performed around them. They told us afterwards that it was a missed
opportunity, and we realised that this show wasn't going to be about
us, but about the audience's own experience.”

For each show, bluemouth intersperse the audience with twenty local
dancers, with assorted turns being performed throughout to a live band
overseen by an MC. With total strangers meeting for the first time on
the floor, as with a real dance marathon, there will be eliminations,
and, eventually, a winner. If any of this sounds at all daunting, think
again. Because, as bluemouth have consistently discovered, as long as
the invitation to join in is set up right, the audience will fling
themselves feet first.

“The learning curve for all of us has been so steep over bluemouth's
ten-year history in terms of how receptive people are and how
intelligent people are and how things have to work out,” says Adams.
“If the MC speaks too long, people are going to get bored, so we have
to say less and do more, and learn how to shift the energy onto the
next thing in a way that people don't even notice it.

As O'Connell and Adams have seen first-hand, Dance Marathon speaks
volumes about an audience's desire to join in the creative process, and
the current trend for experiential works great and small seems to bear
out the company's instincts. While good old-fashioned black box theatre
with fourth walls well and truly intact isn't going to go away in a
hurry, are dance Marathon, Audience and May I Have The Pleasure..? the
future, or just a creative blip that runs alongside the social
disenfranchisement recession culture brings with it?

“I'm really curious to see if it's a trend,” says O'Connell. “I
certainly see a lot more immersive work now, and I'm curious to see if
the sort of paradigm shift that David Greig talks about actually
happens. For us it's always been about making work that's exciting, and
creating some kind of sense of intimacy among the spectacle, and seeing
how far we can go with that.”

Adams goes further.

“With Dance Marathon we've really had to challenge ourselves in terms
of ego,” she says, “and that's not always been easy. But in terms of
the sort of thing that's going on in Dance Marathon, I don't think we
know yet how far it can go. I think this sort of work will evolve, and
I think it will be important, but it's not as if every piece of art is
going to be immersive. Having said that, immersive and experiential
work is starting to reach the mainstream, so who knows where that will
take things.”

Dance Marathon, Traverse Theatre@ Lyceum Rehearsal Room, August 3rd-14th
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, August 2nd 2011

ends

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