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

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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle