Suzy Willson and Paul Clark
The Lowry, Salford
Clod Ensemble has a reputation for experimentation. Previous productions have seen the troupe performing while encased in glass containers and inviting the audience on stage to test whether being in close proximity to the performers makes a difference to the perception of the work.
Placebo, directed and choreographed by Suzy Willson, acknowledges and gently mocks this approach by staging the dances as if they are part of a scientific experiment. The clinical approach is enhanced by a voice over welcoming the audience to an ‘observation room’ in which the dancers can be studied and the futuristic costumes, designed by Art School, that make the cast look like they have stepped off the Starship Enterprise.
In a break from the tradition that dance should communicate only by physical movement, Placebo makes extensive use of spoken voice-overs to explain the purpose of the experiments in which the cast are participating. A Placebo is a sugar pill that has no actual physical effect but promotes recovery in a psychological way by convincing the patient that they have received some kind of special treatment. Placebo extends this approach to include other social and entertainment activities asking whether beliefs and expectations can change the way we feel. As a practical example Placebo asks if the audience can be encouraged to enjoy themselves by seeing a character on stage having fun.
The dance is staged in a series of short scenes often introducing a concept and then staging a range of variations. A gift of a bunch of flowers may make us feel good but not if they are thrown or followed by unwanted sexual advances. In some ways, the experiments reflect on the entertainers. The narrator describes an experiment where mice became active only when under a spotlight and the same could be said of dancers.
The short scenes result in an extraordinary range of routines being displayed but places great demands upon the seven members of the troupe who are called upon to shift from exultant hip-hop dancing to depressive, slouching rag doll movements very quickly. Likewise, Paul Clark’s score shifts from rapid electro-pop to droning cello. There are, however, disadvantages to the short scenes as, at times, Placebo feels like we are sampling the styles of dance rather than exploring them in depth.
Placebo challenges the expectations of the audience about dance. The same scenes are played out more than once with little variation but a change in the background music shifts the mood from a gunfight showdown to a slinky noir thriller. The illusory nature of performance is touched upon with the cast revealing the tricks of the trade and showing a microphone that has been used extensively is a fake.
Placebo is supposed to be clinical which, in some ways, works against the purpose of dance; an art form that is both disciplined and capable of provoking an emotional reaction. The brevity of some of the routines generates an edge of frustration as they can end before reaching a satisfying conclusion.
Perhaps realising the limitations of the short scenes, choreographer Suzy Willson allows for a cathartic extended dance routine to close the show which certainly proves the point that watching expert dancers push themselves to the limit has a very moving effect on an audience.