Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fabulous Beast - an introduction to the company and its outlook

An introduction to the company, its outlook and way of working
Commissioned by Barbican for Flowerbed, 2005
by Manchán Magan

For the neophyte the Fabulous Beast world may seem intimidating. Certainly it is hard to find suitable parallels in our world. A performance can consist of tragedy, slapstick, opera, yoga, ballet, footlight revue and contemporary dance all moulded into a dynamic format which is tender, gruesome, raucous. In short it is a series of exquisitely posed cartoons built around a taut but multi-tangential narrative that shears through the cloak of convention to expose a frequently scabrous underbelly.
Finding oneself submitted to this animalistic honesty, this determination to express can be unsettling at first. There is a rawness here that is increasingly rare in our world of compromise and mediocrity. You can be sure that a Fabulous Beast performance will be as intimidating as it is entertaining.
Does that make it any clearer? I fear not. The performance is sort of like a composting chamber – the performers being insects and bacterial organisms that create nourishment from the dung heap of the human condition. The narrative extracts entertainment and insight from the extremes of our experience. Fabulous Beast frequently wallow in the unseemly aspects of the human psyche – revelling in the murk of our lives. It is gruesome, yet gripping. At its core there’s an honesty and a simplicity that, although shocking, is very reassuring in this sanitised world. It’s sort of a purgative; nourishment for the soul. At the risk of sounding pretentious, (something that would make any Fabulous Beast member gag involuntarily) the determination with which the company operates reminds me of a working party of, let’s say, dam-builders or reapers or turf-cutters - the simple, skilful timelessness of labourers from any era and any place.
Is that any clearer? Perhaps I should try breaking the performance into its constituent parts: themes explored, narrative style, language, characters, performing style and idiosyncrasies of the development process.
Let’s start with the themes. They tend to loiter around the areas of rage and fear, the wastelands in which sexual and spiritual ecstasy bleed into one another. There is often a tendency towards darkness, a focus on the veniality of society. The storylines are cut and pasted from tired old myths, classical literary sources or simply the imagination of the director/choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan. Their primary purpose seems to be as scalpels, which are then used to eviscerate a culture. Keegan Dolan carefully severs the tendons joining sex and violence, compassion and depravity, insanity and genius. As I say, it can be gory, but it is in the freshness, the new-minted ingenuity, with which these staid old themes are ripped apart and remoulded that makes one prepared to endure the, at times, unedifying spectacle being played out on stage. Storylines in a Fabulous Beast performance are so idiosyncratic and anarchic that they prove difficult to summarise; yet somehow, despite their contortions, they manage to knit the dance, theatre and song into a driving force that hurtles forward. Narration and dialogue are largely absent from early Fabulous Beast works – the later pieces use language in a playful, loose and irresponsible way; punctuating it with exclamations, obscenities and the odd clamorous bout of popular song. The savage simplicity of the words lend them an air which is both contemporary and ancient. It helps to anchor the far-fetched narrative in an almost credible world. Overall the stories can be read as quirky parables that constitute the internal logic of the Fabulous Beast mind. The company are multicultural, coming from four continents and speaking in a mix of global accents which heightens the universality of the themes explored. Most of them are veterans of previous Fabulous Beast shows - they return to the fold each time the call goes out. While their appearance and style may be too idiosyncratic to describe them all as traditional dancers, each displays a marked charisma and stamina, and possesses an array of skills that become apparent throughout the performance.
The characters that they play are invariably compromised. Most reveal a sense of thwarted ambition or festering hurt; lives starved of mercy, twisted by circumstance. Their unsavouriness would make for unpalatable theatre but for their sheer eccentricity – ranging from, a bi-polar nymphomaniac nurse, a catamite butcher, a Glaswegian Kendo dojo master, a bisexual Slovakian line-dancer, a naked pianist with a double life as a Chihuahua, a golf-obsessed patsy, a tiresome, wheelchairbound gimp and a father who lives up a telegraph pole. No matter how gruesome the character, each is expressed with such vitality and grace that one cannot fail to warm to them. Their movements have an integrity that gives even the most ugly actions a contorted elegance. At some point in the story each is given a chance to redeem him or herself through dance – as if the body is the ultimate and only source of healing. This notion that the body can heal itself through motion and breadth is carried through from the development process. The performers undergo hours of yoga discipline each day in Shawbrook studios, the converted milking parlour in the Irish midlands, which they use as their base. The practise unites the company, who vary in age and skills training as much as they do in nationality, and creates a harmony, which allows for a style of movement that is beyond the personal, that aspires towards the timelessness of folklore. It is this element perhaps most of all that keeps the audience rapt through the chicaning speedway of the narrative. There is an edginess, a trance-like focus from the performers that locks one to the stage. As the tone and style swerve unpredictably, one finds oneself in a state of heightened expectation. It’s almost oppressive. One dare not look away.
As a final note, it is worth looking at the issue of the term genius, which a number of reviewers have resorted to in describing the work of Fabulous Beast. They use it in a somewhat tentative way - ‘a brush against genius,’ ‘a bit of a genius.’ One wonders if it is appropriate. It is certainly true that creating something so profound, yet anarchic - such avant garde physical theatre - requires a gift that is beyond the norm, but it is perhaps unhelpful to burden it with such a lofty label. Fabulous Beast thrives on its insecurity, its fallibility – it does not appear to aim for the perfection that genius implies. Either way, the company director/choreographer Michael Keegan Dolan is clearly a brave new voice in European dance, able to excel in many different disciplines at the same time, to scramble them up and throw them back at our faces.
This brazen reinterpretation of Gautier's classic romantic ballet, Giselle, which Fabulous Beast is bringing to New Zealand is like nothing that has come out of Ireland before. It offers a perspective on contemporary Irish society that might leave you horrified or deeply moved, but one thing is certain, you will be riveted for the entire performance.

It is precisely this reason that, despite all my earlier posturing, none of us has any idea really what to expect of James son of James until we have sat down and the lights have dimmed. This is a brand new work for the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, The Barbican and Dance Touring Partnership, and as such it is a volatile entity that could very well tear up the rule book of what Fabulous Beast is all about and redefine it. Everything I’ve written might well be redundant . . .