Toe-tapping, head-banging and placard-raising, ACT infects the audience with the unstoppable rhythm of protest. German ensemble Tanzcompagnie Rubato’s piece was inspired by political demonstrations worldwide over the past decade. Three jeans-clad men offer up image after image of social action, playing out the movement of protest, but don’t seem to be invested in their cause.

The three emerge from behind a plywood screen and begin circling one another in a geometric pattern, a rhythm gradually rising from the sucking sound of their sneakered feet sticking to the floor. A thoughtful hand on each chin gradually pulls open the mouth, which widens, mask-like, in an image representing freedom of speech.

As if imbued with centrifugal force, their circling quickly reduces the three to a single entity reminiscent of a – denser – swarming mass of bodies. Suddenly they withdraw and minutes go by in which we do not see their faces, for their noses are pressed against the plywood wall as they stamp their feet and their hands slap out an ever increasing rhythm, growing constantly louder.

They weave around one another in a toe-tapping mince, gripping invisible placards, or opening their arms in wide Vs, heads held high with power but chests left vulnerable to attack. They run backwards and crash against the boards, slump and drop to the floor, their heads banging against it. The jarring sound of skull on wood reaffirms the undying rhythm and puts the audience on edge.

They skip across the stage in diagonal lines and swing an arm overhead. After a few repetitions the distilled movement reveals itself: these are citizens throwing petrol bombs toward a distant enemy.

At moments the three appear in complete control, the next they seem quite unlike their previous empowered selves. They sink to the floor and shake uncontrollably, racked with the pain of torture or frustration of imprisonment. The three simultaneously lift up their shirts on one side to show their left nipples, right elbows covering eyes and face in what feels like a moment of gross violation. They become cowed prisoners as they walk with heads bowed and hands crossed as if cuffed behind their backs. Two slam the third against the back wall in quasi-crucifixion, once again causing a strong reaction from their audience.

There is no doubt that moments of ACT have an effect on the wincing Chinese audience – many of whom are high school students – but the piece doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on the dancers themselves. With such a profound subject matter, I expected to see full emotional investment in the movement. Instead, they present unchanged, blank faces time and again. If they mean to offer images of protest, of the world’s citizens getting fired up enough to fight for their rights, shouldn’t the dancers be passionately engaged? Instead, Tanzcompagnie Rubato rely on the rhythm to rally the troops, which actually seems to work well for the Chinese audience who found the rhythm pretty infectious.

Although the rhythm plays a strong part in the piece, I felt it somewhat inconsistent in places. In fact, the company performed here minus two thirds of their set – they normally have 3 plywood walls, against which they crash out a heftier rhythm. However, in Penghao’s small black box, they made do with a single wall and ran the risk of falling through the side curtains. Turning up the ambient sounds taken from researched protests didn’t quite have the dramatic effect the live rhythm might have had. 

Although one may question the appropriateness of portraying protest to Chinese audiences, ACT fully engaged the small crowd at Penghao with the images and rhythms of social demonstration. Tanzcompagnie Rubato are certainly working with interesting ideas, but I’m not convinced their inspiration has reached it’s height quite yet.