Saturday 7th April 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
We’re currently seeing a much-needed increase in the amount of coverage of the LGBTQ+ community, but little of the coverage offers opportunities for members of that community to be heard in their own words. Jamie Fletcher’s Dancing Bear offers a platform to members of that community, allowing them to express themselves in their own voice; made up of a cast representing for lesbian, gay, trans and cis individuals as well as allies and drag artists, Dancing Bear does well to hand a mic to a strong cross-section of marginalised minorities. In this sense, Dancing Bear is both vital and innovative – the kind of theatre we need to see taking up space in season brochures. Through music, dance, monologues and an interesting bear metaphor, the LGBTQ+ cast members tell their own stories in their own words while the chorus of allies take on the roles of naysayers and phobes. Katie Fenwick provides integrated and passionately expressive BSL interpretation; something borne of her role in the piece as she not only interprets the words of the cast, but her own story is told for her by a cast member. Dancing Bear delivers insights into the lives of others not from a presumptuous third person perspective, but from a knowing mind sharing their experiences first hand and there’s something very special about the kind of sincerity and authenticity that Dancing Bear offers.Among topics of gender identity and sexuality, relationships and finding yourself, Dancing Bear offers a heavy contemplation of the role of religion in both the peace and the torment of the young and impressionable. The cast term themselves ‘testifiers’ and confide their early experiences of religion in us. They share how their experiences within organised religion has shaped and challenged them – and even broke them in some cases. ‘Clobber verses’ are called out and the uniting message of love that all theologians cling to is held up as a measure of true goodness; love is Love is love. Other important discussions include weighty, poignant topics of abuse, victimisation, suicide and the frustrating prominence of heteronormative thinking. The danger of ‘straight spaces’ for those who unintentionally communicate their sexuality or gender identity as plainly as the nose on their face is not an unfamiliar topic, but this piece uses choreography and symbolism to hammer home the angst of experiencing that blanket prejudice.The sheer scope of Dancing Bear’s material, messages and content makes it difficult to categorise, which is by design I have no doubt. Here we have a group of marginalised people crushing boxes and giving conformity the finger; to reject a neat paradigm is entirely in keeping with the subject matter, but it does mean that while each message is important and very worthy, as a a piece of theatre it is something of a rough diamond. It sometimes feels disjointed as when one narrative thread ends, there’s a clunky interlude while the cast gets into position for the next; there’s no seamlessness to the segues between the dance sequences and the next song or the next monologue, which is a real shame considering the glowing potential of a piece like this. The appearances of the bear after which the show is named are also an example of a great concept not quite perfected; the bear narrative is fairytale like, with the gender-neutral character cast out by all other forest animals – they cannot find a place to belong and they must learn to love themselves and create a community for themself rather than trying to fit in with unaccepting communities who only show alarm and dismay at their unusual dancing and shedding of fur. The message is clear and the metaphor apt, but it is the lack of connection between bear and other aspects of the production which is in need of attention.The face of Dancing Bear is Owen Farrow, a drag artist under the name Divina De Campo. Farrow is one of the central performers in the piece, singing many of the songs in a powerful, passionate voice while also providing some self-deprecating humour and some gorgeous dance performances. Joining Farrow as frequent occupier of the mic is Beccy Owen, who is also the writer of both script and original music (music also the creation of Ric Neale and Jamie Fletcher). Owen’s voice is full of experience and gravity despite being beautifully gentle and mellow; her songwriting is deeply emotional and personal, offering messages of hope while also presenting the torment felt. Jamie Fletcher also offers a feeling voice to the musical numbers and her vision for the whole piece to be a call for greater inclusivity is apparent in every element. Music is of course a fantastic way to capture and communicate the experiences of people we don’t know who live through experiences we never can as well as allowing us to identify our own troubles in those of another – music is universal even if the language of the lyrics is not, and the expressiveness of the music in this piece is its crowning glory. The prominence of music also allows the production to branch into contemporary dance – Marshall joins Mike Williams for some beautifully choreographed (Eleni Edipidi) sequences which superbly demonstrate the depth of meaning and emotion dance can achieve. Though the production is billed as ‘An uplifting & moving new musical’, it’s actually more of a showcase made up of individual stories told through song and dance. ‘Musical’ seems to promise something more developed with a central narrative whereas Dancing Bear is more of a rough diamond – a series of short, informal performances connected thematically rather than through a shared narrative. It’s certainly a performance which leans heavily on music, but it’s more thrillingly unfettered performance art/ avant-garde than a classic example of musical theatre. Regardless of how the show defines itself in the marketing however, there’s no doubt that this is a refreshing piece of theatre with important messages and we most definitely need more theatre like this on our stages.
Dancing Bear is a piece commissioned by Contact Manchester. It is a Jamie Fletcher & Company and Contact co-production which is presented in association with The Palace Theatre. As this was the final performance of Dancing Bear, I can offer no ticket link – but I do hope to see the show given another life at some point, and when that happens, I’ll share the information here – for now, take a look at Jamie Fletcher’s site here.