Staged as part of the Southbank Centre's weekend-long Being a Man Festival, Company Chameleon's Of Man and Beast is a shortened and revised version of the Beauty of the Beast production that the company toured last year. The festival brochure describes this new version as an ‘outdoor dance piece’. It is performed here in a circle of chairs in the space beneath the auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall (The Clore Ballroom). In the surrounding foyer there is a busy café, a bar, a gift shop and an Aston Martin DB6 on temporary display to prompt discussion about the relationship between men and cars. All of this fades into the background as soon as dancers Lee Clayden and Anthony Missen (who also choreographed the piece) take up their positions to begin the performance.

Company Chameleon © Brian Slater
Company Chameleon
© Brian Slater

They and the three other dancers have been doing strenuous warm-up exercises, in public, for some time. Underneath quite ordinary-looking shirts and jeans and trainers, their bodies now are like tuned instruments. Immediately, their movements resonate. The piece explores ‘strength, camaraderie, vulnerability and hostility’ amongst men. The five dancers switch between all of these states in constantly unpredictable ways. A hand extended in what looks like friendship becomes the springboard for more combative physical interaction.

There are moments of humour, early on. The five men stand before the audience in a line, each with a hand thrust into the waistband of his trousers; the youngest of them, Theo Fapohunda, fails to impress the others with his hip-hop dance moves. The attempts by this dancer to be accepted by the group, and particularly by its leader, Clayden, form part of the structure of the piece. In the space of its thirty minutes, Of Man and Beast uses movement and touch to dive surprisingly deeply into questions of exclusion and inclusion, acceptance and rejection, dominance and subjection. When he is accepted, Fapohunda becomes a kind of pack animal (the beast of the title), growling and snarling as Clayden leads him and another dancer (Gustavo Oliveira) around the stage.

In a solo that follows, Clayden shows the vulnerability that lies beneath the leader’s own, hard exterior. He crouches in a foetal position; he leaps with flailing arms. When another man (Taylor Benjamin) approaches it is not to comfort him, as one might think or hope, but to challenge him. Benjamin joined Company Chameleon in March this year, after appearing in DV8 Physical Theatre’s John at the National Theatre. Lithe, with a good deal of presence and stronger than he looks, he is able to throw the taller, bigger Clayden over his shoulder and to support the full weight of the other man’s body when it leans against his own. The piece ends with all five men moving as a group, and with Benjamin, perhaps, established as their new leader.

Interviewed for an article in the November 2014 issue of Dancing Times, when Beauty of the Beast was on tour, Anthony Missen said:‘I hope my work is a prompt for audiences. Somebody told me after a show, “My husband has started talking to me about things I never knew about.”’ This new version of the production is, I think, clearer and more powerful than the original.   

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