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You Animal, You review – Force Majeure's new work a gladiatorial dance contest with no clear objective

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela in Force Majeure’s You Animal, You.
Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela in Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Photograph: Brett Boardman Photography

Towards the end of You Animal, You, we witness what seems to be a messy, soiled birth. A washed up matriarch, played by Heather Mitchell, delivers a monologue in which she compares the delivery of her son to drowning on waves. As she does, a male dancer flips and turns inside a giant inflatable plastic bag. Eventually, he tears it open and slides out – naked as a newborn – into a pool of spilt water. Gasping for air, slick with moisture and sweat, he slips and skids around the slimy wet.

It is by far the most compelling sequence in You Animal, You and for this alone it is worth seeing Force Majeure’s new show, a Sydney festival world premiere. But, the birth sequence aside, although there are interesting moments, You Animal, You lacks the focus and clarity needed to make it truly sing.

Force Majeure, of course, has a reputation for pushing boundaries with shows such as 2015’s Nothing to Lose, which asked whether fat bodies can be beautiful, and 2012’s Never Did Me Any Harm, an exploration of parenting. In this case, artistic director Danielle Micich, who took the reins last year, wanted to delve into smell. In particular, how our sense of smell fosters or hinders performance.

A man inside a plastic bag
A messy, soiled birth: Harrison Elliot in You Animal, You. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Micich gained inspiration from sports psychology; namely, the fact that brushing the Australian archery team’s bows with talcum powder helped them to do better by calming nerves (the scent reminded them of their childhoods). You Animal, You was then workshopped with the five performers, who used dance and language to try and encapsulate their reaction to their own olfactory systems.

The result is a one-hour performance with text written by Micich and Mitchell, a seasoned stage actress, that takes place in a sort of gladiatorial contest. The audience surrounds the vast rectangular stage, which has the feel of a basketball court. There, Mitchell – a controlling, vindictive matriarch in a tattered gold sequinned dress – leads a series of games. She sits up on an umpire’s tower, in which she is wheeled around like a battered old goddess, yelling into her megaphone. When she shouts “Let’s play!” the other characters jump to action. Damien Cooper’s spotlights and the bare stage design, save for an explosion of yellow confetti, adds to the sense that we are in some sort of sports stadium.

Heather Mitchell on stage surrounded by yellow confetti
Heather Mitchell as the matriarch figure in You Animal, You. Photograph: Brett Boardman Photography

Interspersed with dance choreography and Kelly Ryall’s persistent score is dialogue between the characters, each one brilliantly defined as the matriarch tests them individually and in competition with each other. Especially memorable is a bitter exchange between the older woman, almost spitting with disappointment and disgust, and what appears to be her bullied, cowed daughter, played superbly by Lauren Langlois.

The monologues, too, which could so easily be naff, stand out as succinct and at times even poetic. The character known as Yellow (Torres Strait Islander actor Ghenoa Gela) is a sunny, helpful presence who counteracts the fear that the matriarch wields; yet she describes how black moods can suddenly, without explanation, overcome her. Langlois, through word and dance, explores the chaotic world of synaesthesia where the senses get involuntarily blended together. It’s a beautiful, moving set piece.

For all this, smell, a subject with so much potential, somehow gets lost; in fact, I would not have been able to guess that smell was a theme at all had I not read the program. What is missing, then, is an overriding arch or a reason why we, the audience, should care about these characters and their journeys; everything seems a bit too random. And yet You Animal, You has promise, were it to be developed, laced as it is with some fascinating vignettes and exceptional moments. I won’t forget that birth scene, so vividly portrayed by Australian Dance Theatre’s Harrison Elliot, for a long, long time.

You Animal, You is showing until 8 January as part of Sydney festival

This article titled "You Animal, You review – Force Majeure's new work a gladiatorial dance contest with no clear objective" was written by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 9 January 2018 02.29am

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