Last and First Cabaret

Let me state at the beginning – I have a lot of affection for Greenwich Dance. We worked with them for more than a decade and I’m delighted to see that i-want, run by ex-Cogger John Gilsenan, still do all of their design. I’m also a big fan of Brendan Keeney, their Director who is leaving after 16 years to take up a new post at DanceEast.

We booked for this event specifically to wish Brendan well at his ‘leaving party’ so, given the unique nature of the evening, I should probably be less grumpy about it. I suspect that everyone else in the room loved the occasion. Everyone seemed to know each other. Amongst them, I recognised most of the big names of UK contemporary dance, dotted at tables like we’d gate-crashed an exclusive wedding party.

A short speech from Brendan and two-dozen women in Brendan masks brought red roses to his table. Embarrassment free, that was a genuinely lovely moment

Michael Smith

For me, the evening embodied many of the reasons why I rarely go to see contemporary dance. Not because I don’t enjoy the dance but because the knowing, self-referential, cliquey set-up that surrounds it feels exclusive and unwelcoming. I have a low tolerance for paying to feel uncomfortable and that’s how this evening made me feel.

In fact, discomfort started long before the event. We’d spotted that these events were advertised with a ‘haggle for a table’ option. We phoned and suggested that we haggle, they had no idea what we were talking about, someone would ring back. No one rang back. We called again, the haggling person wasn’t there. No one rang back. We called again and, rather than be able to haggle, we were offered a lower price (which was higher than the later advertised ‘haggle price’). We paid. We waited for tickets. We weren’t sent tickets. We called again. Obviously tickets would be held for us on the door. Obviously.

We arrived and went through the rigmarole of having to ask for our tickets to be found under one of three possible names. Not a big deal but another chip of embarrassment.

We didn’t know where to go, we milled around in the foyer. I now know it’s upstairs, up either side of the art-deco staircase, but we had to follow other people to work that out.

We took seats at our table. Everyone else had bottles of wine but there was no indication that there was a bar. Two of us popped out for beers only to find the bar on the way back. Then a woman appeared and offered to bring drinks to our table. Embarrassed again, we hid the beers under the table.

Russian hip-hop blared and the poet, Elvis McGonagall, took the floor. I took his picture. He made some house announcements: there is a bar, there is table service, and there is no photography. I put my camera away.

The evening split into two halves of three acts each. There were some interesting moments in each.

Juggling on Tap alternated rhythms with balls and feet; Mimbre performed with astonishing feats of balance and strength; Anna Williams parked her bike at our table, and her ‘celebratory nod to anatomy lectures through history’ was, I’m sure, technically accomplished.

A twenty minute interval and some touching tributes; a short speech from Brendan and two-dozen women in Brendan masks brought red roses to his table. Embarrassment free, that was a genuinely lovely moment.

Then Elvis was back with a poem. Then a different Elvis appeared with hula-hoops. In fact, Craig Reid performed (in a come-back-special Presley jumpsuit) with many illuminated hoops. He was magnificent.

New Art Club stretched a three minutes routine to twenty minutes of excruciating embarrassment, climaxing by bringing members of the audience to perform with them. Whilst I was flashbacking through my nightmares, the chosen few were loving it. ‘How do you feel about your body?’ they asked. ‘I love it’ was the reply you’d only hear in this room. This was their crowd.

Finally, Yael Flexer’s piece ‘Weightless’ ended the evening by renewing my acquaintance with contemporary dance. I’d call it pretentious but it wasn’t pretend, this is a community that has built its own language of words and movement. I just don’t have the lexicon to translate the conversations.

There was a disco until midnight. Can you imagine being on the dance floor with the most renowned choreographers and dancers in the UK? I preferred to leave that to my imagination. I retrieved the carrier bag of beer from under our table and skulked out of the room, down the other side of the staircase and out into the cold hard light of night.

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