nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 6, 2011
bluemouth inc.'s Dance Marathon is perhaps the richest, fullest theatre experience I've ever had. This extraordinary event, which mashes up the dance marathon concept from the '20s and '30s with contemporary dance/physical theatre and a sort of live version of reality TV, is joyous, exhilarating, remarkably moving, and wondrously fun. Do it—it isn't a thing to merely be seen—and you will find the barriers and boundaries of conventional performance pushed wide open; you'll understand anew what theatre can be.
Dance Marathon is, at heart, just what it says it is; and this gives it both structure and throughline. Everyone in the room—those who paid to see the show, or (like me and my companion) were invited to see it, along with those who are performing and/or working in it—is participating in a dance marathon. There's a Mistress of Ceremonies (Cassandra Bugge); a Referee (Clayton Dean Smith, who determines when contestants are eliminated from the competition); a five-piece orchestra led by Richard Windeyer; a singer named Lady Jane (Ciara Adams) who also helps our MC keep the festivities flowing; and a floor manager (Douglas O'Connell) who, with a silent but ever-on-the-move staff, ensures that all goes smoothly for the nearly four hours of the show. Everybody else—many dozen people last night, when I was there—is a contestant in the marathon. The rules are straightforward enough: keep your feet moving and you can stay on the floor (if you stop moving, the Ref will call you out); elimination rounds of various kinds (quizzes, dance competitions, a "morals" test) gradually winnow the field until, by the semi-finals, just six couples remain in contention. And yes, there's definitely a winning couple, and some nice prizes including a very impressive looking trophy.
But there is much more going on in Dance Marathon than a dance marathon. As in the actual events from the Depression Era on which this one is based, there's a vaudeville-like collage of entertainment interspersed with the participatory dancing: cast members (who, you'll recall, are among the contestant dancers; eventually you'll realize which ones they are) do specialty bits including slam poetry, singing, and solo/paired dancing. There are also several organized dance segments in which the featured dancers dominate the floor with a variety of forms, from a thrillingly raucous version of the Madison to a zesty conga line. Guest artists perform during breaks; at intermission a visiting band did several numbers, while another of the contestants led a jazz tune on saxophone. (The talent base involved in Dance Marathon is awesome and apparently endless.)
And...there's also a kind of storyline that runs through the show, as we are introduced to two of the contestants, Ramona Snjezana Knezevic, a recent immigrant from a war-torn Eastern European country, and Little Stevie O'Connell, who eventually gets paired with Ramona after he wins one of the night's sillier contests. These two are portrayed by Lucy Simic and Stephen O'Connell, who are co-founders of bluemouth, inc. and co-creators of Dance Marathon. Through short set pieces and several dance sequences we learn a lot about the inner lives of these characters, and also about the meaning and power of dance. Indeed, what struck me most about Dance Marathon was the way that dance can be so intimate and revealing, especially when presented, as it is here, without the formal trappings of performance. Simic has a gorgeous solo that comes during one of the several rest periods provided, in which she seems to be dancing only for herself, expressing something otherwise ineffable. Elsewhere in the show, a voiceover urges the dancers on the floor to sculpt the air around them with their bodies; that's exactly what this show seems to be about.
It's also a joyful communal experience. It is a contest and there is a winner, sure; but the evening is more about everybody pulling for everybody: everybody shedding self-consciousness to be gloriously and truly themselves in front of strangers.
If you're wondering how yours truly made out in the competition, I am proud to tell you that I was the very first person eliminated. This turned out to be a nice piece of luck, because it left me available to observe the proceedings in a way that the folks on the dance floor could not; I was rewarded with some breathtakingly terrific dancing, by the cast (Simic and O'Connell along with 10 featured performers: Hadar Ahuvia, Ivan Cheng, Pablillo Jose, Aidan Nelson, Traci Redmond, Koby Rogers Hall, Caitlin Stephens, Valerie Vitale, Maria Anna Carcioppolo, and Aura Maria Mateos) and by the "civilians," many of whom were just as stylish and fast on their feet as the pros. The music runs the gamut from Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" (accompaniment to a glorious waltz led by Simic and O'Connell) to obvious faves like "Billie Jean," "Staying Alive," and, inevitably, "YMCA."
I also got to witness several moments that I can only call "bluemouthian," when something transcendent happens, as if you have entered the dream of another. Perhaps the most beautiful of these was the one when one member of a couple stood blindfolded while his/her partner danced around them in what turned into a shifting blur of movement.
Dance Marathon is so well-put-together that you need not worry one whit about feeling awkward. You don't need to know how to dance (trust me: I am the poster child for not knowing how to dance). You will be randomly assigned to dance with someone you don't know, and it will feel fine; gender is happily not taken into account—male/male and female/female couplings are as common as the traditional male/female ones; it's all about the body here, not about sexual preference. You can stop dancing when you want to (but you can't win if you do). There are lots of opportunities for breaks, and water and other beverages are close at hand. It's an endurance contest, but a comfy one.
And, ultimately, an enlightening and enlarging one. Dance Marathon lets you lose yourself in another kind of existence for a full, heady night that blurs all kinds of boundaries that you ordinarily encounter in your life. bluemouth inc. and their many collaborators in this piece (in addition to those already named, they include Cameron Davis, Elijah Brown, Sandrine Lafond, Daniel Pettrow, Sabrina Reeves, dramaturg Bruce Barton, lighting and set designer David Duclos, stage manager Billy Hiscoke, technical director Emma Rivera, company liaison Chris Reynolds, assistant stage manager Roslyn Helper, and costume consultant Rachel Jones) deserve uber-kudos for creating a work approaching genius. I would love to do it again.