Patrick Centre, Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK; November 13, 2014
Manchester-based Company Chameleon’s latest production, “Beauty of the Beast” by co-artistic director Anthony Missen, is a sometimes intense, sometimes quite beautiful, and certainly thought provoking look at the male psyche, individually and as part of a group. Although the underlying themes apply to males generally, as a very personal work based around personal experiences and what shaped the dancers, it is however often focused on manhood of particular place and time.
“Beauty and the Beast” looks at strength and camaraderie, simultaneously showing that for all the bluster and (often false) bravado of young males in particular, sensitivity and vulnerability are never that far away. Hovering over everything are issues of identity, and especially how man uses a mask to hide his real self, especially when he feels pressured to conform to group norms.
The work may be about the different faces of masculinity but for those familiar with the show’s publicity, the opening comes as a surprise. Dressed in pale blue tights, the light glinting off and highlighting their bare torsos, Eryck Brahmania, Thomasin Gulgeç dance a strong, beautiful quite balletic duet. It is all grace and strength. It’s certainly men dancing powerfully and athletically, but not quite what was expected. After Lee Clayden joins in, they are caught by a gang formed of the other three (Missen, Theo Fapohunda and Daniel Phung) who are the predictable young male stereotype. They quickly change and join up, although Brahmania has to prove himself first.
Fitting in and feeling pressure to conform to group expectations so as to be accepted is the theme of what follows. Narrative-driven, as the group dynamics take shape there’s quite a lot of speech, posturing and plenty of references to the reliance on violence (or at least the threat of it) and fear to enforce norms. With the dancers now in battered jeans and hoodies, the youth, street-culture characterisation is pretty predictable, though. In a way it’s about strength of a different sort, but in another it’s about weakness. Depending on your sense of humour, you might find some of it mildly funny – or not. I have to say I didn’t.
“Beauty of the Beast” touches on a lot of truths, but it’s at its strongest when Missen shifts away from narrative and stereotypes and starts to dig beneath the surface; when he starts to address man’s more vulnerable side. Significantly, that’s also when he moves away from spoken dialogue (why do so many dance makers seem to think it’s essential these days?), although there is one extremely effective and heartfelt monologue, and focuses on using dance to make his point. And he is a top notch choreographer.
The show includes some striking solos and intimate, tender duets, as well as some neatly structured whole ensemble sections. In amongst everything are some clever fight references were the dance is full of violent kicks, rolls and pushes away; and the beast of the title is quite literally brought to the stage when Clayden, Gulgeç and Brahmania become two pit-bull type dogs straining at their imaginary leashes held by their owner.
The whole cast was excellent throughout, and some of the dancers’ athleticism was exciting indeed. Missen himself was a particularly strong presence whenever on stage. In the gang he was certainly seemed to be the one to be feared rather than the nominal leader.
Throughout the work, Yaron Abulafia’s excellent lighting often squeezes the space and has the effect of focusing the attention tightly in on the action. The music is eclectic, original compositions from Miguel Marin and Kevin Lennon sitting alongside Bach, rock and hip-hop. Some of the transitions are a bit jarring, but on the whole it works.
The end is striking in its simplicity, and emphasises the point that there is the private and public face of man, and that the mask that so often hides the former can take many forms. It highlights yet again that, despite outward appearances, man (and indeed woman) is often deeper than he (or she) looks. Having said that, one sequence that sees individuals cross the stage one after the other implies that, while we may now be standing rather than crawling, in some ways evolution has passed man by!
“Beauty of the Beast” could easily have turned into a preaching, moralising even critical lecture about the state of man. That it never feels like that is a testament to Missen’s skills. No, he just shows it as he sees it, then sends you away pondering.
Definitely a company going places and definitely a piece worth seeing.