Who is dance for? Is it for the people doing it or the people watching it? In the context of a theatre performance, this may seem a slightly ridiculous question. The people on stage are professionals. You would hope that they love what they do and that is why they have put so many hours into perfecting their craft so, yes, they will get a lot out of what they are achieving on stage but ultimately it is the audience who has come to see them perform. So it’s conceivable that the dancers are having a terrible time but putting on an incredible show. A performance which looked like great fun for the dancers but was, for whatever reason, totally lacking in any pleasure for the audience would be less acceptable.
Ask the same question in a club though and you get a totally different set of answers. Look around and you’ll see people who love dancing for dancing’s sake, for some this pleasure will be intensified by being with good friends, maybe by substances. Unlike professionals, they don’t know what’s coming next and the interplay between the DJ and the crowd (of dancers) is part of the pleasure of a night out. It’s those perfect moments when the DJ plays a track that you weren’t expecting but is actually the most perfect thing.
In many ways, TWERK (as I’ll call it because I don’t know what the full title’s even supposed to mean) is a traditional dance performance. The audience enters the theatre. We take our seats. We watch the dancers. The choreography borrows from the ballroom scene as well as dancehall and krump, and yes there are moments when the performers (three female, two male) twerk: all in a row. They’re a lot better than Miley Cyrus.
There’s a strangeness to the whole experience though which, I think, is to do with seeing and hearing club dance and club music in a setting that is usually reserved for contemporary dance and ballet. The show has already started as we enter the Lilian Bayliss, the volume is up high and, if you closed your eyes at this point, you’d probably think you were in a club. Not a crap one either. A really good one. The two guys shuffling about slightly awkwardly to the side of the stage are Skilliam and Elijah, founders of the Butterz grime night that ran at Cable for years. They headline rooms at Fabric. If you’re into grime, they’re a big deal. They’re not used to playing in a theatre though. This whole thing is as weird for them, it seems, as it is for us.
We can admire the skill of the dancers: their mastery of these organic forms that bleed into each other and frequently subvert concepts of camp and machismo. We can also admire the musicians draw on as many influences as the choreographers. These forms, whether grime or ballroom, are distinctly urban and they embrace everything, adapt to everything, make it their own. The question of cultural appropriation that flared up with the whole Miley Cyrus twerking incident becomes rather problematised by the constantly mutating and adapting sounds and moves of our cities. By placing these forms, which are more found than developed at a theoretical level, on a stage that we associate with “art”, Chaignaud and Bengolea are challenging our notions of cultural hierarchy.
Perhaps this is a conversation that needs to take place but it feels like it might be a conversation within the contemporary dance world. People who go clubbing know the fluidity of dance culture. Sometimes you’re doing it, sometimes you’re watching it. This is even hinted at within the performance as dancers will take a rest not on stage but at the edge, as if they were the seated audience in a voguing battle. We, the actual audience, are shut out from this though, excluded from the porousness that is usually a central feature of club music. I’m not saying I’d have joined in but, you know, it’s nice to know the option’s there.