Direction: Suzy Willson
Music: Paul Clark
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Since their inception in 1995 Clod Ensemble have earned a reputation for creating challenging, interrogative, multi-disciplinary work that blends music, movement, dance, theatre and live art and metamorphoses between conventional theatrical spaces, sited work, galleries and public spaces.
Placebo is their third appearance at The Lowry following on from their memorable appearance at the venue’s inaugural Week 53 festival where An Anatomie in Four Quarters deconstructed the theatrical experience of being in the massive Lyric Theatre for a limited audience, and 2017’s Under Glass which reimaged the Quays Theatre as a museum of human curiosities.
Placebo is presented more conventionally end-on from the Quays stage but the company’s playful experimentation is very much still to the fore. Placebo– which is partnered with Manchester Science Festival and comes with a suite of associated events and talks nationwide – interrogates the placebo effect: exploring our capacity – as audience and performer – to make ourselves feel better (or worse). The show is presented as a series of experiments – initially driven by an automated voice issuing instructions and explanations and later taken over by the dancers themselves.
Each experiment plays with context, mood and meaning, using repetition and restaging to question how our emotional and physical responses are dictated by factors that may be real or imagined, fake or authentic, autonomous or dictated. How does it feel to watch a dancer who is dancing something that gives them joy? How does it feel to watch a dancer when you know that the choreographed movements are giving them pain that they are concealing? How can you tell when something is real or fake? What are the effects of music, lighting, intent, agency, authenticity, costume when not simply watching but experiencing dance? Do you feel relaxed, tense, excited, anxious, impatient? Dance has the potential always to be one of the most emotionally-communicative theatrical art forms because you are reading bodies and movement (and sound and light) and not – generally – having your main focus driven by words. Your brain is freer to absorb multiple sensory experiences watching dance.
But the show is primarily playful and questioning. The choreography moves between airy Michael-Clark-ish ballet formalism, loosely joyful group dancing, hints of African dancehall from Valerie Ebuwa and postmodern naturalism. All seven dancers are diverse and interesting individuals: dance makers in their own right. There is play with the effect on audience experience when the usual dancer neutrality slips and a flash of impatience, bossiness, exhaustion – or joy – is glimpsed – or unleashed. But when they dance, especially when they dance together, the pleasure flows freely.
The show is set to a cleverly-constructed melange of classical fugue, clubby EDM and a collage of sound clips gathered from far and wide, which explore mood and meaning and emotional and physical wellbeing, composed and assembled by Paul Clark.
An added dimension comes from the gender-neutral costumes by Art School: black and mesh bodysuits overlaid with a variety of detachable silk kilts in jewel colours, soft white asymmetric jackets, voluminous gowns and shimmering black wraps. These items are added, removed and switched, making you consider – and question – the role of costume in the way dance is presented.
Placebo has many of the familiar tropes of theatre-based contemporary dance but playfully deconstructs these with wit, humour and intelligence: and the knowledge that for audiences watching dance tremendous pleasure comes from watching dance: even if it is the placebo effect.
Runs until 13 October 2018 | Image: Camilla Greenwell