If you have any chance to go see Contact Gonzo I kind of want to tell you not to read the rest of the review until you’ve seen it. There aren’t really any twists – I’m not sure I could give you traditional spoilers – but I can’t write this review without giving away more than I would have wanted to know before seeing it. If you like dance that isn’t at all gentle, but doesn’t feel nasty, you should go. If you like performance which is funny and thoughtful without forcing you to laugh or telling you what to think you should go. If you like weird percussion you should definitely go.
The show is split into three acts, separated not just by the actions within them but the way each holds the audience’s attention and gaze. It begins with the slow, painstaking (emphasis on the pain) transportation of a drumset across stage, the performers clambering over each other’s bodies. It firmly establishes many of the things that will be important in the performance – tension, force, percussion and travelling. It is slow and focused, our eyes all drawn to the single points of movement as each performer takes their turn to progress along the line.
The transition into the second act feels sudden but at the same time seamless. There is no explosion, just the sudden realisation that there are many things happening at once and you don’t know where to look. This feels like the ‘main’ bit of the show: the performers fighting and wrestling, slapping and hitting and jumping over each other, while two percussionists move around the space, one on two chairs with long swishing branches, the other more embroiled in the dancers’ fights, grasping at more conventional instruments. Although the performers are occasionally all brought together by the same point of attraction it is always only a turning point, stillness only an illusion as everything changes again.
The next transition is as the first, gone before you realise you’re in the next act. In this case quite literally, as one by one the audience are bought into the performance space balancing twigs and branches pressed between their bodies. Here our gaze is fixed, we may be able to extend our visual reach through craning our necks and a mirror at one end of the room, but we are mainly restricted to what is in front of us for fear of dropping our part of the network, wondering at the giggles and moving eye line of those facing us.
It can often feel like the aim of much dance is to make very difficult movements look completely effortless. This is not at all the case with Contact Gonzo – we see effort, we see push and pull and stumble, we see pain and discomfort. At the beginning, a foot putting all a body’s weight on a lying chest wobbles, finding it hard to gain balance, while the body beneath reacts and tenses. Later, bodies press against each other with all the effort they have. Although the ending is much more peaceful, focused on balance and interconnectivity and (very, very importantly) attempts at stillness, that tension is still there, that push back, even maybe a little of that discomfort. It might be because I had seen the Richard Feynman-focused The Nature of Why (another Mayfest show) the night before but it felt quite physicsy – the acknowledgement that even the most tranquil scenes are full of warring forces, particles ricocheting off each other. I could imagine the second act existing in tiny miniature within the third, tiny dancers fighting each other where our bodies met wood.
Throughout the show, those tensions and countering forces show the potential of saying no, of pushing back. The literal and physical aspect of that are obvious, the new directions and shapes the dancers are forced into by each other’s bodies creating unexpected and exciting moments. But they also push back in larger ways, undermining each other’s plans and breaking each other’s patterns – from pulling a drum away from the stick hitting it to pushing off a hard-won balance at the top of a pile. It feels like an improv teacher once told them to ‘always say yes’ and they beat them up. It keeps the section exciting and unpredictable – it reminds me of stories of clown schools where the Grand Master tells students to start again as soon as he can tell they have a plan.
Which is funny because I feel like one of the special things about the show is how playful it is without being clowning (and this is coming from someone who both loves clowning and will claim that anything with Timing or Looks is basically clowning). It wasn’t that it isn’t funny – there was plenty of laughter – but there is no acknowledgement that it could be funny, at least not in the first two acts, no well-timed pauses, no sideways glances.
But neither is it overly po-faced. The closest I can get to summing up the atmosphere is that it feels like it has a very teenage energy – siblings or sixth-form boys* fighting not because it is funny, or fun, or out of any particularly pointed malice (though not completely un-angry either) but just because the impetus is there to do it.
You may find the show funny or touching, you may think it or feel it, you may be able to interpret meaning from the movement or not, but for me it had the most important thing for performance: the impetus to watch.
*There are in fact two female dancers and a female percussionist – there could probably be a lot more written about gender in the show, about whether it was right that I enjoyed the fact that they could join in the aggression without the fact of their gender being the centre of the story it told or if the different narratives of violence can never be separated from gendered bodies, but to be honest I’m already over the wordcount on this review, and I’m not really sure what to say.
Contact Gonzo was performed at the Jacob’s Wells Baths as part of Mayfest. Next on at the Theatre Tropicana in Weston-Super-Mare on May 19 and 20. Click here for more details.