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Pleasures of the flesh

How a nerve-shredding new dance production from Dave St-Pierre has divided the critics.

"Attention-seeking behaviour" is a term given by grown-ups to infantile provocation, gratuitous disruption or unruly display. Think of toddlers, tantrums, the "terrible twos". Theatre performance is also - on some level - a kind of attention-seeking, albeit a sanctioned, grown-up kind.

Well, last week at Sadler's Wells Theatre, in Dave St-Pierre's piece Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! (translated as "a little tenderness for crying out loud", which excises the smutty/shitty overtones of the French), the two kinds of attention-seeking collided explosively - and there was fallout. People either loved it or hated it. There were plenty of walkouts; also, a standing ovation. "An amazing evening of theatre," enthused Judith Flanders at artsdesk.com, while the Observer's Luke Jennings called it "lazy, derivative and very, very provincial" and the Telegraph's Mark Monahan slammed it with a zero-star rating.

It was certainly impossible to remain unaffected - but was that a response to serious theatre or a reaction to bad behaviour? The polarising moment, for many, was a scene in which the company men, wearing blond wigs but otherwise bollock-naked, invaded the audience with a volley of high-pitched shrieks, scampering over seats and sitting on laps, jiggling their willies in people's faces and shoving their bums around - a horde of toddlers in adult guise running amok among civilised grown-ups.

In some parts of the theatre, this produced quite a party atmosphere, albeit with a dangerous edge. Elsewhere - perhaps because boys will be boys - the boisterous spirits became more directly confrontational (just in front of me, a dancer tried to give Monahan an earful of dick, and Jennings had his specs taken and spat on). When the performers eventually returned to the stage, the sense of relief among the audience was palpable, though undermined by "Sabrina" (Enrica Boucher), the evening's compere, who gave us a withering smile and said "Congratulations! You have just survived the first twenty minutes."

During the remaining hour and a half, there were further assaults on sensibilities and sensitivities, though mainly on stage rather than in the auditorium. There was mock-masturbation, more spitting, lots of screaming, various terrible twosomes (dysfunctional couples are like mother's milk to contemporary dance). Oh, and Sabrina shagged a cake.

Some of the scenes looked obviously influenced by the late, great choreographer Pina Bausch (who once called St-Pierre's dancers "my pornographic illegitimate children"): a line of men hitting their own faces; a solitary woman, a wreck of quivering nerves, who is kissed in turn by each of the men. The dancers robed and disrobed, the men donning their squeaky-voiced, blond-wigged personae as they doffed their clothes. Sabrina, offering a wise-cracking, tough-talking commentary on the action that menaced the audience and dissed the dancers, stayed clothed until the final transcendent scene, when the stage turned into a big puddle of water. The dancers slid across it on their tummies, or thrashed like spawn in a pool - and Sabrina finally became one of them, all as naked and innocent as the day they were born, doused in water as if it were amniotic fluid.

Most, like the Guardian's Judith Mackrell, found the finale an "astonishing coup de théâtre" - attention-grabbing in the grown-up, theatrical way. Much of the rest you could call attention-seeking in the infantile-behaviour way - wilfully provocative, unruly, gross. You might find it disarmingly childlike or tiresomely so, but either way it is hard to ignore.

Still, hard to ignore is not the same as worthy of attention. So here is why I found the piece worthwhile - transfixing, even. For me, the iconic moment was not the attention-seeking audience invasion, but the opening scene (echoed later on) of two duets. In one, a woman implores, pleads, yanks, tugs at her impassive partner; in the other, a woman rails, beats, punches, flails against hers. They looked like toddlers' tantrums, one showing naked need, the other raw rage; both revealed a blind, consuming desperation for attention. You could take them as yet more dysfunctional twosomes, but I read them as St-Pierre's relation to his audience: needing, provoking, forcing us into some kind of reaction. St-Pierre hadn't just mixed two opposed kinds of attention-seeking - one infantile, the other adult - but joined them.

The boundary-breaking felt physical. Once the audience had been invaded I felt as tenderised as meat, my nerves shredded - as if the social skin between audience and performers was now bruised and raw (though not in my case violated: I hadn't been on the receiving end of any unwanted attention). And from then on, I was sensitised: the scenes of brutality, need and innocence felt as tender as a wound.

Sanjoy Roy is the New Statesman's dance critic