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I only live here part 3: Call Mr Robeson & Inside

Posted: September 2nd, 2010, by Stan Tontas

CALL MR ROBESON, Zoo Southside, 21.8.2010

I liked this musical biography a lot, only knowing the vaguest picture of the singer’s life: Ol’ Man River, South Wales miners and not much else. He turns out to be tough, charismatic, intelligent, well-read and driven, reaching heights of international fame then battling on in the face of politically-motivated attacks. When he (as played by Tay? Aluko) talks of his father as his inspiration you shudder to realise that you’re only 3 full generations from slavery. That sobering fact is used to explain his determination to carry on in the face of travel bans and hostility.

The play uses music to great effect in two powerful scenes: switching his set to Negro Spirituals / Freedom songs on realising his audience had been segregated (these Walls of Jordan, going to come crashing down). And at a festival at the height of his notoriety, with a cordon of workers protecting the stage from an attack by white supremacists, a rendition of Old Man River in which he struggles to be heard over the blades of a police helicopter but finally drowns it out. Music as weapon in defence of human dignity and attack on injustice, in Aluko’s gorgeous voice that reaches you through your gut as much as your ears.

There are moments of humour, with a recurring joke about his womanising, but also harrowing psychological drama as he reaches his lowest point in the mid-1950s. It adds up to a complete portrait that returns to life a complex and driven man who has slightly fallen out between the cracks of history.

INSIDE, Zoo Roxy, 16.08.2010

First a caveat: I know nothing about dance except that it comes with music. While others in the queue for this were asking “are you here for the Jean Aubreu?” I was thinking about 65 Days of Static. (The entire reason I saw this show? Many years ago that band left a sticker in the 13th Note Club which held together my bikelight until recently.)

Overall I enjoyed the show with some reservations that may have nothing to do with its quality. The dancing was both muscular and supple; looked high standard to me. I have issues with the way it related its theme of imprisonment, which felt like it drew wholly on film and TV representations rather than any real-life experiences. I’d love for the clichés of rape, pecking orders and macho posturing to be supplemented (if not overturned) by a more nuanced portrayal. I was left with unanswered questions. Increasing numbers of people are imprisoned: what is it actually like? Surely a big thing about confinement is the lack of space, constraint of movement? That didn’t feature here as the dancers slid & scampered across the whole breadth of the stage.

Another avenue not explored is the two-tier power structure of guards and prisoners (think Stanford Prison Experiment). These dancers all seem to play the role of prisoners, and interchangeably so. It’s an approach but I think they’ve missed an opportunity ripe with possibilities for reversal and surprise. Maybe that would require a more political engagement than the media-led view; but it would have dodged the brief moment where it looked like a boy-band video.

Aside from this: it was too long. I didn’t see enough variation in the routines and would have happily sheared off 20 minutes. The music is good but the programme’s “experimental” tag overstates it slightly; QUIET-loud-QUIET style post-rock isn’t unfamiliar now. I could have listened to more of the harsh rhythmic-industrial parts, they seemed to fit well with the dancing.

Gripes aside, a dance show that holds my non-dance fan interest has to have had quite a bit going for it.

Stan Tontas

Stan lives in Glasgow.

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