Witness Double Bill, the current tour from Manchester based Company Chameleon, explores the difficult subject of mental health. Co-Director and choreographer of the company, Kevin Edward Turner (who founded Company Chameleon with Anthony Missen), draws on his personal experience of bipolar disorder in the creation of Witness.
Depicting the struggles and impact of the illness onstage with sincerity – and without belittling its effect – is, without doubt, a challenge. It’s perhaps the reason why we see little work created in dance about mental health. Yet in this honest and brave attempt, Company Chameleon prove that dance can be an effective medium for highlighting the impact of mental illness.
For the most part, Witness manages to find the delicate balance between sincerity and stereotype. The company’s movement style across both works is athletic, with a strong and energetic physicality, yet in Witness the addition of speech and physical theatre lends the work a sense of realism.
Voiceovers accompany sharp, anguished movements, a simple yet immediate way to express the continual battle that Kevin, as the central character – and father – in this piece, faces against his thoughts. In one instance two of the company follow him around the stage, each suggesting different paths of action. The two voices could easily become a clichéd image but in the simplicity and conviction of their actions it avoids being so.
This combination of speech and action is a clear way to visualise the delusions from which Kevin suffers. It makes his movement natural and personal, the emotions behind it more prominent. When dealing with a subject where clarity is key, this straightforward but thoughtful approach is both fitting and effective.
Equally, when the work turns to solos and duets, the emotion and intention of the movement is easily understood. The duets present some of the more touching moments of this work, especially those between Kevin and his daughters, danced by Helen Andrew and Margarida Macieira. Their presence brings a softness to the piece, a counterpoint to the masculine energy surrounding Kevin’s illness. Through them we see moments of support and tenderness, a poignant portrayal of how Kevin’s actions affect those close to him, and the first steps on his road to recovery.
Despite the subject matter, Witness is not all serious. Company Chameleon find some lighthearted moments, including a bizarre but comic interpretation of ‘Flash Gordon’. For the majority of the work, Company Chameleon maintain that crucial balance, but sadly, at the point where Kevin is offered medical help, Witness teeters into stereotype. In an asylum-like institution where the inhabitants are beset by tics and anguished behaviour he is examined by white-coats, pulled and prodded like an animal. Yes, it’s a disturbing image of the treatment of mental health, but in an otherwise naturalistic work it feels forced.
For a work that is seemingly so self-aware this sudden stereotyping is all the more bizarre – especially as the work then returns to its previous state, drawing to a close in a tender duet. The strength of Witness lies in the emotional expression of its movement and the honesty with which it portrays the struggles surrounding bipolar disorder and mental illness. In one short scene it loses this hard-earned integrity – but excepting that, Witness is a strong attempt at bringing some important subjects to the stage.
Witness is accompanied by Words Unspoken, a short, succinct work that professes to expose the untold secrets of its performers. From the start its fast-paced athletic movement, combined with the strength and fluidity within the dancers’ bodies, proves exhilarating to watch. As each dancer has the spotlight turned upon them, in solos, duets or ensemble work, some gentle and nuanced moments unfold. One dancer’s internalised frustration, a pattern of repetitive twitching movements, is gradually calmed by another. It’s one of the clearer moments of the piece – as to the untold secrets of the others you are left to draw your own conclusions. Still, the choreography is quick and complex and the company build a tantalising atmosphere.
Across both works the company prove themselves as strong and versatile performers. While Witness could benefit from some closer refinement the company have, on the whole, created an exposing and effective work that brings the issue of mental health into the open.
To find out more about Company Chameleon, click here.