#2 Short & Sweet

Dance Theatre, Variety ( Dance, Spoken Word, Drag, Comedy ) The Pit, Barbican


A dance theatre variety show in two acts, a collection of "portraits" in motion — short and sweet performances full of character and mirth. Eleanor Perry & Daniel Hay-Gordon of Thick & Tight are joined on stage by an extended cast of soloists, as well as visiting members from dance company Corali and the Camberwell Incredibles.

The first performance in the sequence was supposed to be a duet, a peculiar moth dance for two, but Perry could not attend the performance in person because of illness. Of course the show must go on, and so we had Hay-Gordon alone in a solo moth effort — but something was clearly missing. The moth piece is an homage to Japanese dance theatre tradition, all done in heavy face paint and extreme eye shadow, though perhaps a little short of Kabuki. It's a commission piece from the distant pre-pandemic timeline, intended as a filler between acts of traditional theatre.

The performance begins with a light, of course. On the floor we had a rope of LED light coiled in an angular spiral. In the middle of the stage a focus light, a hanging, unshaded light bulb. The opening was no unlike the Theatre Re one featuring a ghost light.

The dance was complex, carefully controlled restless moth irritation in a tinny, wailing soundscape. Tiny, specific movements, a study of relationships and synchronisation. Hay-Gordon had the most peculiar outfit on, a webby crêpe or tulle overall construction with a thick trousers-assemblage stapled on top in the front. Wriggling, shaking gesturing and the occasional audibly splatting footstep. Arms flailing in moth mime. Something of Kafka's Metamorphosis here, perhaps. Arresting, yet sleep-inducing. For sure a challenging work to open with.

The second show woke me up. A brilliant Sid Vicious tribute in dance from the talented Connor Scott. Imitation, punk rock stage antics, explosive eroticism, and also vulnerability. Lithe, tall and lanky — cocksure. Flexible leathery rock star trousers, elastic spray-on jeans and top. Some lip sync on archive audio footage, BSL-interpreted in real time by a trooper of a translator. A flickering exploration of immortality, the famous "My Way" rendition used to make a point about living true. Sid's voice strong and weak at the same time. Curious questions from young audience members about his downfall during the pause before the next show.

The third piece was a Grace Jones tribute from Azara Meghie. Less lip sync, more personal commentary. Moments of reflection alternating with short breakdance sequences. An exploration of how this dancer's story is just like Jones's. Meghie, too, has roots in Jamaica and found herself at the Vauxhall arches. Excellent archive soundbites from Jones fielding questions from a hopelessly square interviewer. Jones really was a pioneer, way ahead of her time. Not quite as tall and slender as Jones, Meghie danced her heart out and owned the floor. Incredibly nimble, assured movement with a fuller figure.

To wrap up the first half, we in the audience were treated to an ode to Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964). Sitwell was an influential poet and critic, an inveterate advocate of the arts. In her own words she was "descended from queer and remote sources", and is remembered today for her bold, eccentric character.

This Sitwell dance portrait featured simple dresses and odd hats inspired by her singular style. Hay-Gordon and five members of Corali put on a wonderfully simple, effective choreography. The sequences were accentuated by sound clips from an interview with another clueless host, a bit of a British institution. Team Corali seemed to be having a great time, and they put on an infectiously happy show. A charming peacock section with paddles for feathers. The show was expanded through video projections featuring the Incredibles. A great response from the audience.

After a short interval, the second act began with a legendary lip sync performance by Hay-Gordon, a skit based on Curtain Lady, a YouTube sensation from a few years back. Unbelievable, so pretty. In the Q&A that followed, Hay-Gordon shared that the segment got started after he received the link from a friend who remarked that Hay-Gordon is a decent likeness. The face pattern — incl. the actual face in the curtain — was a result of the devising process. Hay-Gordon bemoaned the hours it takes to script, practice, and perfect the lip sync.

From quality curtains we moved on to a Twiggy tribute. Harry Alexander's drag portrait provided us with a strong juxtaposition, featuring a lean, muscular man in a tight canary yellow "it girl" outfit. Twiggy was all about The Look. In the show, we had moments of that famous darling attitude, but the overall performance didn't quite sell it. But perhaps that wasn't the whole point.

The third piece in the second half was the most ridiculous of them all, a Rasputin burlesque from Oxana Panchenko as a bearded ballerina. The action was turned up to 11 with a disco ball and some serious ribaldry. A difficult, intensely physical performance to pull off in a winning way, but Panchenko made the most of it.

The show finale was a glorious meeting between John Cage and Elaine Page — Perry remotely on video and Hay-Gordon on stage. The show started out as a modern lip sync dance duet, precise and carefully choreographed to the microsecond. With Perry unable to attend in person, the performance was adapted for a duet with a wall projection. And apparently the reimagining was done in a matter days! The circular projection on the wall was scaled and windowed perfectly to enable a variety of interactions for Hay-Gordon on stage. A superb demonstration of comic dance theatre from this amazing creative duo. Standing ovation.

For the post-show talk, the audience was treated to a special BSL interpretation delivered in drag. Hay-Gordon was visibly tired, but in good enough of a mood to engage in the Q&A.

The discussion started with with the unlikely character of Edith Sitwell. Where oh where do these characters come from, how is the source material turned into these portraits? For Hay-Gordon, it's an exercise in matching performers with characters, building on fleeting resemblance and an extended circle of friends and colleagues who connect performers and large than life characters.

Connor was an easy sell as Sid Vicious by appearance. Cage & Page started life as a simple rhyme, but the research process revealed a wealth of links between the two. Oxana had something of a Rasputin in her, somehow. Sometimes the soloists come forth with their ideas: Azara wanted to do Grace Jones, so it was a matter of making room for her.

The approach to choreography varies, Hay-Gordon works with the dancers to find the character. Sometimes there's video recordings to work off from, sometimes there isn't much of a physical reference. For Edith, for example, the source material had little in terms of physicality. It was all about the audio, but much of it turned out to be quite dull. As such, the task was to focus on the exciting parts of the character.

However, it's not supposed to be a parody. For Hay-Gordon, the key thing is to not overdo it. Choreographic decisions should come naturally, swiftly. Nothing is gained by "sitting on it", wasting time in endless physicality pondering.

Mirth is the foundation of the Thick & Tight way, and juxtaposition is the principal delivery mechanism for the humour. It's all about how things read together. The portraits, the choreography, emerges from this simultaneity.

With duets, the standard approach is that the two on stage either kill each other or love each other. But Hay-Gordon is keen on exploring more nuanced relationships between people on stage. It doesn't always have to be about high octane desire, always so obsessed with bodies. Dance should be more about connection, and the search for connection. Indeed, it's completely different, without Eleanor actually on the stage. Incredibly, the video part was just a last minute construction because of the virus.

Hay-Gordon offered that both he and Perry are both clowns in a way. Perry is the straight and precise one, obsessed with timing. Hay-Gordon is more about mirth. It's a great balance to have in a duo, silliness and precision.

The LIMF is a natural home for Thick & Tight, as this team sits somewhat outside the norm. Hay-Gordon, both classically and modern trained dancer, offered that dance is not generally funny. The company is often called "quirky", but he isn't all too keen on the label. Hay-Gordon has that appreciation for professional dance, classical ballet and Merce Cunningham and all that. Dance can be very elite and respectful. But there is much more to dance than that. LIMF, in contrast, is all about the re-evaluation of the forms.

Sure, Matthew Bourne is funny, in an orderly, particular way. But for Hay-Gordon, the challenge is to lean a bit harder into it, enough that it breaks, so some people don't like it. You have to get into that camp territory, or it doesn't work. At the same time it's important to perform and appeal to a wide audience. In a way, Thick & Tight — Short & Sweet — is all about an old fashioned kind of fun, a little something for everyone.