Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

This Is Not A Wedding

Gracefool Collective
Gracefool Collective
De Grey Rooms, York Theatre Royal

Gracefool Collective in This Is Not A Wedding Credit: Drazen Priganica
Gracefool Collective in This Is Not A Wedding Credit: Drazen Priganica
Gracefool Collective in This Is Not A Wedding Credit: Drazen Priganica

Gracefool Collective describe themselves as dance theatre which is “feminist, forthright and fiercely funny”. I missed their broadly well-received previous show This Really Is Too Much but was excited to see the latest from this young collective of graduates of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

In the extremely apt setting of the De Grey Rooms, itself bookable as an actual wedding venue, a woman in a white dress ushers us in and insists we sign her guest book. In front of us, a couple enact and re-enact a hypnotic sequence in which they move together from opposites sides of the stage, nearly make contact, then move apart again. The fourth member of the ensemble stands ready to speak into a microphone.

It quickly becomes clear that the company has a real gift for striking physical imagery, visual imagination and the use of unconventional, memorable gestural work in witty and unexpected combinations. The four women judder muscularly through a robotic sequence of unison and counterpoint to "Road to Nowhere" by Talking Heads; a slow dance duet carries on regardless of the third body hurling itself at and across their shoulders and torsos; finger-snapping, shoulder-rolling contemporary chorus lines of choreography are set to the likes of Vivaldi.

The text and dramaturgical framing of the piece, though, is less satisfactory. The show opens with a statement that we’re still waiting on a few guests, that this is definitely not a wedding, that we’ll all just have to pass time together until everybody’s ready.

But these tropes of the event not-yet-begun, the deliberate awkwardness of time-filling, the play of boredom and embarrassment, the questioning of the audience (and themselves) “What’s it all about? When will it all be over?” are all well-worn ones executed already and much more effectively by the likes of Forced Entertainment and many others since.

Audience participation is not so much invited as enforced and this is one section where the performance really lost me—not least as I was made to be part of the least successful of these moments. Drawn up onto the stage and planted in front of a microphone, I was told to speak to my fellow audience members, but this interaction seemed unwelcome whenever I attempted it. Essentially, and characteristically of much of the rest of the show, the “rules of engagement” were not made clear, leaving me eager to play along with them, but totally baffled as to what they, or the performance, wanted of me.

One obvious point of comparison for the company is RashDash, though This Is Not A Wedding lacks the gimlet-eyed rigour and sense of purpose of that company’s work. Another performance which came to mind, involving a much more productive use of audience interaction, was Chris Thorpe and Rachel Chavkin’s Confirmation. For all the danger there was in that audience / performer conversation, all the risk, there was also care and control.

Overall, the gestural and choreographic work really opens up interesting questions about the expectations and weirdnesses of weddings, and there’s much to be said on this theme. But it feels as though the company hasn’t quite faced all these questions head-on, and as it stands the show feels stretched thinly across its 70-minute duration. Sure, seeing people give awkwardly unfunny speeches to crowds of strangers, or watching people you don’t know take endless photos of other people you don’t know (another audience interaction moment) is odd, and boring. But many of us will doubtless already have been invited to our own site-specific, immersive performance events of this kind up and down the country over the summer months.

Messiness I can embrace, and Gracefool Collective’s imagery and performative skill I can admire; this is potentially fertile territory, but I was left quite unsure what, if anything, they wanted to say about it.

Reviewer: Mark Smith