Manchester-based Company Chameleon Dance Theatre returned to London for a reprise of Beauty of the Beast, which had first been shown – for one night only – at The Place last November. It was a great pleasure to catch up with it at the second time of asking.
Company Chameleon appears to be a close northern cousin of the New Movement Collective with considerable crossover in personnel and creative talent. This association starts at the very top, given that Anthony Missen is both a founding member of NMC and co-artistic director of Company Chameleon, which he founded – with old friend, Kevin Turner – back in 2007 after many years planning for a contemporary dance theatre company in their home city.
Beauty of the Beast – surely a contender for cleverest title of the year – is a fascinating study of how male behaviour evolves through the processes of their interaction. It begins with the ritual of acceptance into “the gang”, the establishment of a pecking order of subservience and the allocation of nicknames. It examines both the camaraderie and hostility within the tribal arrangements of this male group dynamic, the newcomers trying to fit in; the “boss” exercising control, enforced by his “hard man” lieutenant.
There’s much comedic value in these early induction routines born out of the practical jokes that are used to remind the newbies who their bosses are. The newest recruit, Eryck Brahmania, is encouraged to repeat a song of reverence to Manchester; and when his first attempt falls flat, Missen (the hardened gang leader) asks him to give it more passion, but abruptly cuts him off, shouting out that “it’s a family show”! It’s like a thug beating up a victim and then apologising for swearing in front of the children.
This dichotomy between toughness and sensitivity lies at the heart of Missen’s work. Gang members regularly practise martial arts and boxing and they openly fondle their genitals as they stare angrily into the audience. But, underneath this aggression and volatility flows an undercurrent of vulnerability and friendship. Through the decades, we have become immune to “news” stories of the worst football thugs being men with respectable jobs (once again reminded of this by the recent case of Chelsea supporters’ racism on the Paris Metro) and – although we never get to see these six outside of the gang dynamic – there is a strong sense that they may lead sensible lives elsewhere; the youngsters going home to their mothers, the leaders to their wives, children and jobs in the “city”.
That Beauty of the Beast is such an uncomfortable, yet all too accurate, reflection on the social behaviours of men under the influence of a group regime is largely to do with an outstanding cast. Missen shines as the abrasive brains behind the group, comfortable with handling the majority of the spoken text; Brahmania is the innocent newbie who quickly fits in; another NMC regular, Thomasin Gülgeç is the more independent-minded newcomer, perhaps a threat to the status quo; and the two younger members, Theo Fapohunda and Daniel Phung (both postgrads at Northern Contemporary Dance School) give excellent support as the stalwart gang members following Missen’s every word. Although these individual characterisations are strong, the group is nonetheless most effective as a dancing unit with strong, athletic and rhythmic harmonies.
The central role is that of Missen’s chief “lieutenant”, known affectionately as “Big Dick” (reaffirming the reason for this aphorism by rolling his arm down to the knee when the name is called out by Missen). Here is a guy that you would not want to meet late at night; a man with a chiselled, granite jaw and an evil stare; Lee Clayden is a shoe-in for similar typecasting as the next Vinnie Jones. If there has been a better portrayal of a hard man with a soft underbelly then I haven’t seen it. The penultimate scene with Clayden holding two dancers as if ferocious dogs pulled back on strong leashes was very striking imagery; as was the subsequent dénouement where, left alone on stage, he returns to normality and – now dressed in a suit – reflects on the hideous beast he has become. His haunting, quizzical, quivering breakdown was powerful and absorbing dance drama; as good as it gets.
Beauty of the Beast also scores through its eclectic musical output, a strange mix of the classical and modern (original music by Miguel Marin and Kevin Lennon), which works well to define the various dynamics of the group’s activities from their workouts to the nightclubs and onto the streets. The use of classical and synthesized music was not unlike the way in which Stanley Kubrick defines the vicious crime spree of the “droogs” in his filmed interpretation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and there are, of course, many parallels between these two worlds. One should also credit Yaron Abulafia’s diverse lighting effects, which made the most of a plain stage by suitably delineating the various activities; and Emma Bailey’s costumes quickly and effectively established characterisation.
Buoyed by immensely strong performances, expressive characterisations and excellent dancing, this tightly-knit exposition of men behaving badly has nary a dull moment in a roller-coaster ride of slapstick humour, cool satirical comedy and challenging psychological drama topped off by unlikely moments of tenderness.
Hopefully the company’s reputation will continue to evolve so that future London dates are more than a single performance. The current tour moves on to Lancaster (13 May) and Margate (19 May) with three outdoor showings of an altered version (entitled Of Man and Beast) at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival (16/17 May); Salisbury Festival (24/25 May) and the Greenwich & Docklands International Festival (4 July). As you will have gathered by now, it is highly recommended.