GDance / Ballet Cymru / Riverfront Theatre
at Newport Victorian Market
The title of this collection of themed dances and scenes – performed by a company of professional and community dancers, some of whom are disabled – derives from the children’s playground game in which a player stands ‘stuck in the mud’ (i.e. frozen to the spot) until another player comes along to tag them and thereby release them from stasis. The idea being that a performance of Stuck in the Mud will set free those who are stuck in their preconceptions of what it is to be disabled, or otherwise marginalised from mainstream society.
An assessment of how successful GDance, working here in collaboration here with Ballet Cymru, were in achieving this aim is inevitably determined by the extent to which certain prejudices about the disabled and marginalised are ingrained on your consciousness. Fans of inclusive, community-centred theatre and dance, many of whom appeared to be numbered among the Newport audience, might be said to be the last people in need of being liberated from superficial perceptions about the disabled, however, the evening soon began to acquire a celebratory spirit of communal gathering and diversity that transcended this ostensible aim.
A twilight procession of audience members through the darkened streets of Newport – a town centre now made even more dispiriting by a profusion of construction-site barriers and warning signs – arrived at the recently refurbished Victorian market, where they were led, promenade style, to performances in each corner of the building. One of the most stunning illuminations offered by Stuck in the Mud was the way in which each element of the show related to the space, amplified by a minimalist electronic score composed by Welsh Livery Guild award-winner Jack White, so that even this long-time Newportonian paused to marvel at the atmospheric and dramatic qualities of the city’s Victorian Market. A particular highlight of the evening was a short interlude in which dancers performed in silhouette against three shaded windows of the market’s upper floor. Immersive theatre, in some quarters, deserves a well-earned reputation for cheap gimmickry, but in the instance of Stuck in the Mud the integration of historical space, music, lighting, performance and audience interaction combined to create a profoundly moving and inspiring experience.
Newport’s Victorian market has been a touchstone for Newport’s community for over a hundred years, although recently its place in many peoples’ hearts has been lost to the out-of-town shopping parks on the outskirts of the city. Thus Stuck in the Mud had found in this long-neglected building a fitting venue in which to present its celebration of community values, inclusivity and dogged perseverance in the face of adversity. While that may sound somewhat worthy, the emphasis throughout was on playfulness and humour. At one point the disabled dancers performed with wellington boots on their arms, providing a surreal and subversive commentary on how some able-bodied people might regard their physical ‘handicaps’. The performances by disabled dancers in particular were presented with an unaffected joy that became increasingly infectious as they were all choreographed without a hint of condescension or pity.
Not every piece was entirely successful, a wedding ceremony involving a cross-dressed bride and groom was clearly intended to challenge traditional notions of marriage, yet it came across as needlessly heavy-headed in spite of the beautiful candlelight setting of the market’s upper floor. A duet between a pair of able-bodied male and female dancers – who each took turns to strap themselves into a wheelchair and perform – was more successful in pushing the limits of what can be done and said about difference through the medium of dance.
The evening climaxed appropriately with the entire company presenting a dance that evoked the excitement and ebullience of the school playground. The cheers and screams of children, embedded within the soundtrack, filled the market space with a heady air of giddiness. Perceptions of abled and disabled bodies quickly collapsed as both sets of dancers bounced around with giant balloons and played out games of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. The Riverfront Theatre is to be commended for supporting this community arts project through their Discover Dance Festival, and for gathering under the banner of dance an eclectic range of artists and performers in a truly inclusive manner. The performers of GDance and Ballet Cymru, under the direction of Artistic Director Matt Brew, performed with an expectedly high level of precision and skill; but the disabled of Newport danced to express something, for want of a better term, of their souls.