Saturday 7th April 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
We’re currently seeing a much-needed increase in the amount of representation of the LGBTQ+ community on stages, but little of that representation offers opportunities for members of that community to be heard in their own words. Jamie Fletcher’s Dancing Bear offers a cast representing for lesbian, gay, trans and cis identities as well as allies and drag artists. In this sense, it 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. There are insights into the lives of others not from a presumptuous third person perspective, but from knowing minds sharing their lives experiences first-hand, and there’s something very special about the kind of sincerity and authenticity offered by this show. While exploring familiar central themes of gender identity and sexuality, relationships and finding yourself, Dancing Bear also 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, sharing how their experiences within organised religion has shaped and challenged them – and even broke them in some cases. Other important discussions include weighty, poignant topics like abuse, victimisation, suicide and the frustrating prominence of heteronormative thinking – all of which are explored through a combination of dialogue, choreography and symbolic staging.
While there’s much to praise here, the sheer scope of material is perhaps on the over-ambitious side and some of the staging choices make Dancing Bear a bit of a rough diamond. Here we have a group of marginalised people crushing boxes and giving conformity the finger in a vast array of ways, but while each message is important and very worthy, it sometimes feels disjointed. 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 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 a clear message and the metaphor is apt, but there is a lack of connection between the bear and other aspects of the production.The face of Dancing Bear is drag artist Owen Farrow, aka 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 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 powerful experiences 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 and with a central narrative, whereas Dancing Bear offers a series of short, informal performances connected thematically rather than through a shared narrative. Regardless of how the show defines itself in the marketing however, there’s no doubt that this is a refreshing piece of theatre, avant-garde in tone and unfettered performance art in approach. Above all else, it offers important messages and we most definitely need more work 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 so maybe take a look at Jamie Fletcher’s site here to learn more instead!