Men and Girls Dance does what it says on the tin. There are men, five professional dancers, and there are nine young girls, who dance for fun. Here they dance together, as well as talking and commenting on the action. But today the very idea of adult males interacting with and touching young girls elicits a sharp intake of breath and a whole host of concerns and worries about male motivation and intent.
The work has been made by Fevered Sleep’s co-artistic directors David Harradine and Sam Butler as a deliberate attempt to re-establish the possibilities for innocent fun and social interactions between adults and children. It is funny and charming and all the cast, and not just the younger members, look as if they have a wonderful time. it recalls the sheer thrill you felt when you were quite small, shrieking with joy while being picked up whizzed around and around by your dad in the back garden. It shows us a simpler and happier time where no shadows fell over adults and children together. But you can’t help but wonder if that land can ever truly be found again now, no more than we who are older now can return to the innocence of childhood. For a short work staged very simply, it throws up a lot of searching and troubling questions.
Everyone is dressed in ordinary clothes, people you might see any day on a street in London. Initially, the men sit in a line at one side of stage facing the girls on the other. It was like lining up at school to be picked for teams in games. The participants here regarded each other tentatively, until one of the girls ran forward. As the work progresses the groups steadily mingle and interact more, learning to mimic each other’s movements. The girls are very active and equal participants: they initiate events and actions, setting a man’s arm swinging or tugging him into position.
There is lots of fun to be had with the sheets of newspaper that make up the set. One of the men emerges from it wrapped up like a mummy in paper and stomps around. Clad in a huge sheet another becomes a monster that chases everyone to much squealing. The girls all were focused and confident in both movement and speech. At times microphones are passed around and they comment on what the male performers are doing, or what they look like with an alarming simplicity and directness. “Now he is tangling his arms up”. “I can see all the different colours in his beard”.
The most debateable section is where the men get to comment on the girls, and to touch them. One man picks up a girl’s hand and describes it in detail, the weight and the skin on the knuckles. This, you feel, is where it could all go off the rails. The shadow of unease falls for a disturbing moment. It’s dissipated when they return to the exuberance of dancing, which becomes livelier and faster.
Old school playground games were evoked by two girls forming an arch with their hands for others to go through. They girls were also delighted to use their adult partners as mobile climbing frames, scampering up an outstretched leg to perch on a shoulder. The men treated them with care and genuine tender warmth. There was a good deal of giggling, from all the cast and the audience too. The work concluded with the cast enthusiastically flinging handfuls of the set’s crumpled newspaper at each other, those very newspapers that feed our worries about the relationship of child and adult.
The piece works very well in the intimate confines of the Place. Here you can hear every laugh and see every grin on the faces of the performers. It was first seen last year, and now returns to the Place for a run until April 22 before touring the UK later in the year.
This is not a show for children, even if it is about them. It’s not for you if what you want is bravura feats, the movement is necessarily fairly simple in nature. But it will make you think. The work is a touching and joyful demonstration of optimism about us humans in an increasingly bleak age.