“This is a piece about men … white skin, privilege … we’re the problem”
It’s a stark setting, a white sheet against the back wall, a white vinyl floor – gym benches frame the scene. This back wall becomes a space for the group (four dancers from Vincent Dance Theatre and three younger performers) to define and redefine themselves – “father” later amended with “absent”, “son” prefixed by “prodigal”, (an)other – each time scrawled in black charcoal. In this way Shut Down seems to present simultaneously a manifesto, a rebellion, a cry for help, and a mapping of the many identities ‘a man’ could take on. It is both a challenge to any kind of essentialism and an overwhelming navigation of choices, divergent expectations and challenging situations.
The first thing that I grasp about the construction of this work is the effort that has gone into showing me a lack of unity. A marked antagonism is palpable from the outset. And whilst Robert Clark does his best to speak for the group – a sometimes self-flagellating, moralising tone that swells with tedium despite a show of good intentions (further in he’s refreshingly interrupted by the younger Markus Faulkner: “Man, you’re so boring!”) the group are largely divided, representing different routes taken or reaching for divergent identities, repeatedly set at odds.
Whilst the choreographed antagonism presents a clear agenda, as well as a useful dramatic driving force in what can feel like a long work – I did, in moments feel that it need not be telegraphed so bluntly. Tensions, as well as desires and drives, feel imposed upon the performers at points, and as there is likely so much going on internally already – the group having undergone an intensive process of research, observation and improvisation – I crave the release of a tight grip, to let things rise to the surface a little more.
When the group do come together, in a kind of unison, it is in circling group movement, that has a visceral and gestural quality. Laced with references to sports, warfare, martial arts – a lashing out, a fierce arrogance. These choruses are broken by verses exploring individual, internal states and with each interrogation, the circle appears to loosen. A second vital frame to the piece are fierce spoken word sections from Eben Roddis (look up Eben’flo), raw, vocally agile and overflowing with an adolescent turbulence and unrestrained questioning – “Why’s man like this? Why? Why am I like this?” Joined by VDT dancer Janus Orlik, these moments are peaks to the piece, complex duets of searching demands and precise, serpentine movement that seems to shift and mutate in subtle response.
Second highlights of soft clarity come when Faulkner dances a tentative solo edged with evident pleasure and skill (each of the young dancers have training in hip-hop). Faulkner’s music is played off his phone; a teenager finding expression whilst no one is watching. Later, Jake Evans takes center stage, tenderly removing his clothes to reveal lace knickers and a satin slip – his actions carefully emulated by Jack Sergison, watching from a distance. Each moment has an inching vulnerability – a searching sensuousness and determined sense of potential – feeling for a way of being and dancing.
These moments hold a great deal more nuance and care than the outpourings of emotion, the gasps of – almost absurd? – fake tears that come largely from the three older members of the troupe. In these moments I can’t entirely read the tone – are these marked demonstrations of “emotional men showing their emotions” (they do that these days you know), or is there a playful irony going on here? There definitely is when another member of the cast stands over one such tantrum and states, “There’s an alternative to the patriarchy right there”. But these tears repeat as a motif and sometimes the melodramatic balancing act isn’t tipped either way – and these moments ease into or from something more palpably affective and carefully complicated.
Perhaps these juxtapositions – both moments that are sensitively felt and those that feel more forced, marked (also, I guess, sometimes, in their own way striving to find something else, even if this has to depart from the contrived) – are key to the work. Engrained habits, structures and prejudices aren’t going to just fall away.
By no means a perfect manifesto, nor a coherent or accurate map – but it is relevant, it is attempting something hard, a juggling act of frankness, flirtation, care, balance, humour, fight. And there is a need to fight – whilst perhaps not with the violence Shut Down so often embodies – we do need to take a stand it says, up against the “preening big boys” – and whilst not stated, the implications to Trump, to Weinstein and to the whole fucking mess that is the abuse of power, of patriarchy, in its very current storm are brought to the fore.
“It’s hard to know what to do.”
Shut Down is touring in 2018. Click here for more details.