Dancing Bear – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Ginger Bailey, April 2018
West Yorkshire Playhouse was buzzing with activity on Friday evening, but my assumption that I would see a different theatre crowd in attendance at Dancing Bear was proved wrong. I’d imagined a few people in drag at least, thinking perhaps it was a modern musical version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
This was far from the case. An information leaflet welcomes us to Dancing Bear 2018 and helpfully provides a LGBTQ+ Acronym buster. If you don’t know what the letters stand for – as one of the ensemble cast tell us during the performance in relation to educating ourselves further – Google it! Educate yourself people. Or not. I don’t want to come across as preachy. Being the ally that I am, I know what the letters stand for, even if I was unaware until tonight that I am called an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
Talking of preachy, the show concentrates on religion and the conflict for those that follow religion in the LGBTQ+ community. Being a cisgendered women and married to a man, plus an atheist, I had given little thought to how such an individual would reconcile their sexuality and gender with their religion, despite being knowledgeable of how Christianity views marriage and sex. This show does well in highlighting the further difficulties a religious LGBTQ+ faces – but still doesn’t explain to me why they would continue to follow such a religion.
“Heartfelt and interesting”
Dancing Bear, A Jamie Fletcher & Company and Contact co-production, is an ensemble piece and oozes inclusivity. It has been devised and developed over time and changed as a result, although I am unable to compare and contrast, as this is my first time.
From the start the performers up on stage (or rather down on stage – this is the Quarry Theatre after all) introduce themselves, or at least I hope they do and they are not in role. Perhaps to clarify any doubt this could be mentioned on the information sheet. The performers tell us snippets about their upbringing and how their sexuality, gender identity and faith impacted upon them. This is heartfelt and interesting, giving us an insight into the struggles they faced, and is why I think it is important to clarify whether their stories are their own or not.
Weaved in-between these disclosures to the audience, is the story of the dancing bear. We see the bear as he is disowned by his bear community for wanting to dance and for removing his bear hands, we see him attacked by wolves when he removes his head. I think this represents somebody wanting to shed one’s skin and be who he wanted to be but the allegory went over my head.
I asked my plus one, a gay man, to explain it to me – surely he will know. He was none the wiser either. Perhaps it was to reflect how transsexuals feel they are in the wrong body and want to rid themselves of the outer layers of their identity, being shunned and attacked by those around them. I did think a better analogy could be thought-up, but then they would have to change the title of the play. Although then, the dancer, Mike, playing the bear, would not have to wear the clumpy bear costume.
Other than the numerous musical instruments and mike stands and the luminous Dancing Bear sign reminding me of the logo for the film Dirty Dancing but with more bling, the stage looks bare. Handy for a travelling tour, especially if the Art Council grant doesn’t stretch to roadies.
The performers are well-rounded and complement each other. Katie, the BSL Interpreter, stood out and I enjoyed how she acted out some of the story telling whilst signing. The songs were catchy and, whilst being a bit too much ‘The Greatest Showman’ for my tastes, had the audience smiling along and, indeed, up dancing for the final number.
“Achieves its aim”
To my mind, this piece would work so much better in a smaller space, like a pub venue, where there could be real audience interaction and the crowd stood round closely, listening to the stories and watching the dance routines. The impact of the stories would be so much more powerful.
There is one scene that I found difficult to watch. No spoilers, but it was upsetting and involves nudity. I did wonder if the graphic scene was a step too far, but then if it hadn’t had reached its logical conclusion maybe I would have thought it was compromised. Just no pleasing some people, eh?
This piece achieved its aim: To increase knowledge of the issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community. I can see that it entertained the audience and there were plenty of clapping and smiling people in the audience. Wandering out of the auditorium I overheard one person say: “Well, it certainly makes a change to just going out and getting pissed.” Indeed it does.
images: Matt Tullett