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

Getty
Show Hide image

Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage