Saturday, June 10, 2017

Ignition: performers at their peak, working in tandem, telling stories without words

Two performers, a choreographer and a dramaturg walk into a bar – well a rehearsal room – and five days later performed a short new piece inspired by a single word that was emailed to them on the Monday morning.

That’s no joke.

But it is how Tinderbox Theatre Company’s annual Ignition project works.

It’s agile, it’s risky and it’s a way of rapidly prototyping new theatre and physical performance work.

(And looking back, it’s also how I started the review of last year’s Ignition piece. I’ll have to try to be more original next year. Particularly since Tinderbox are being so fearless in jumping between genres to innovate their work.)

Award-winning playwright Abbie Spallen was the source of the provocation. She could have emailed in the word ‘pineapple’ or ‘wind’ or ‘election’, but she chose ‘cuck’.

The theatre-makers leant towards “cuck as in cuckold” rather than any alt-right or pornographic meaning.

It’s quickly obvious that dancer Ryan O’Neill obeys the every command of his partner Vasiliki Stasinaki as he pants his way around the stage like a school child under the command of an out-of-control PE teacher.

He runs. Faster. Falls down. Acts like a puppy. And that’s only the start of the perspiration and humiliation. He is soon exhausted, helpless, and literally burdened with his bossy partner. The audience sympathy is palpable as the exercises become more and more physical and invasive, and he becomes more and more passive.

But then, stop. Wait. Is he beginning to fight back? Is he being less submissive? Will he break free from his conditioning? Will be become a monster like her?

Seeing the piece performed for the first time a mere 15 hours after leaving the Belfast count centre, I could see hints of political undertones. The handshake sequence is surely inspired by the recent analysis of Donald Trump’s attempts at power handshakes with other world leaders. And the dominating/submissive pairing asks questions about the future ConDUP relationship as the local NI party props up the Tories in Westminster.

While the piece performed with simple lighting and against the black walls and floor, with only a chair to litter the stage, the background music is a little more elaborate. Synth pads are replaced with adulatory applause and later “I need a hero” which accompanies a Dirty Dancing scene that’s been soaked in the tears of domestic abuse.

O’Neill and Stasinaki show combine a sense of intimacy with a feeling of oppression in the couple’s ever-moving power dynamic. The cowering and wimpering is awful to watch. Once more back on the leash, broken and powerless.

Tinderbox have created an accessible piece of dance theatre – for not all dance is at all accessible to this outside observer – that tapped into my inner emotions and was quite exhausting to watch. Incredibly satisfying to see performers at their peak, working in tandem, telling stories without words.

Hats off to Eileen McClory, Hanna Sl├Ąttne and all at Team Tinderbox.

There’s still time to catch the second performance of Ignition at 8pm tonight (Saturday 10) at The MAC.

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