Michael Essien I want to play as you

Choreographed by Ahilan Ratnamohan
SICK Festival
Contact, Manchester

Michael Essien I want to play as you Credit: Paulien Verlackt

Based on the experiences of young African footballers who migrate to Europe in pursuit of big-money contracts, fame, stability—or just work of some kind—this piece blends dance, football and theatre to present the game in all its beauty and precarity.

Opening with a stunning piece of steadily growing ensemble choreography, the performers weaving in and out of each other’s paths with the subtle understanding of well-drilled team-mates, the show kicks off with a showcase of the feats of stamina and discipline required to rise to attention among even the lowliest of clubs.

As the six footballers sprint, shuttle and bob, skipping over imagined footballs in a series of intricate warm-up and training moves, they succeed in making even the cavernous Space 1 in Contact look confining, their runs necessarily truncated in comparison with the full length of a pitch. The movement sequences, supported by atmospheric and dynamic lighting and well-chosen, pumping music, really make clear why this is the beautiful game.

Little by little, the dramaturgy of the piece evolves. The players step forward to tell us about the experiences of Africans who arrive in Europe—many beginning in lowly central, Eastern and Northern European clubs. The culture shock of these arrivals is touched upon, as is the sheer physical shock of playing in subzero temperatures in Finland or Russia.

In the movement sequences, training blurs with ritual, sports with dance and show. These young men hone their bodies, become proud of their physicalities, demand that audience members film them on their mobiles for footage to send to the all-important potential agents.

These snippets of stories include the hopefulness of the aspirational lifestyles familiar to all from international media, as well as the desperation and urgency of visa negotiations, and the expectations of friends left behind when the men leave home to find fame.

The later choreographic sequences involve close control of actual footballs, but the most impressive unison and patterned work comes when these highly-trained and disciplined players mime drills and training matches—the ball is just a muscle memory, as rhythm, dance and sport merge fluidly into some electrifying moments.

The stories perhaps inevitably end up becoming secondary to these striking moments of dance-theatre. But they are heartfelt and important, raising questions about what it means to be ‘professional’ or ‘international’, what aspirations are being sold to young men in developing nations, and how employment practices in the ‘beautiful game’ depend heavily on the bait and switch of a promised visa and a big-team contract.

Reviewer: Mark Smith