Originally written for the Guardian.
Fevered Sleep’s latest project, Men & Girls Dance, is exactly what its title suggests: adult male performers dancing with young girls. That relationship, though, has been tainted in recent years. Put the words “men” and “girls” in the same sentence and it’s likely to call to mind suspicions of abuse. This is what Fevered Sleep is hoping to challenge.
Men & Girls Dance brings together male professional dancers and girls who dance for fun, recruited through a local call out. The initial impetus was purely aesthetic: artistic director Sam Butler had been to her daughter’s end-of-term ballet show the day before auditioning male dancers for another project and found herself struck by the difference between the two types of performer. “I thought it would be really interesting to make a piece with male contemporary dancers, because they’re big and strong and agile and tall and muscular, and put them next to little girls in pink,” she says.
But during research and development, the company met resistance. “Some of the reactions were quite shocking,” Butler remembers. Questions and concerns (“What does it mean?”, “We don’t like that, it sounds a bit creepy”) were repeatedly raised. “The politics of it became the thing that people had the reaction to, not the aesthetics,” says David Harradine, the company’s other artistic director. So Fevered Sleep set out to tackle those reactions.
The company began with the two groups of dancers and a series of questions: “Is this possible? And is it beautiful? Does it move us?” The answer was, in Butler’s view, “yes, absolutely”. A lot of that is simply to do with the contrast between the two body types. “Incredible things happen when you are choreographing men who are six foot five and girls who are four foot six,” says Harradine. “In terms of the movement potential, it’s really exciting.”
Gaining the trust of parents in each area they visit is crucial to the process and the company has occasionally encountered reluctance. Butler tells me, though, that the outcome of the workshops has dispelled any fears. “The people who have then gone on to see the showings have had their minds changed,” she says. “Everybody has said it is really joyous to be there and witness it.”
Fevered Sleep is known for its work with video installations and digital art, but in Men & Girls Dance everything is stripped back to just the performers – and newspaper. Whether wrapped around the performers or lobbed across the stage, newspaper pages are a constant visual reminder of the relationships between men and girls that we are used to seeing in the media. “It says so much,” says Butler, “we don’t need to say anything else.”
The performance itself, though, is worlds away from the headlines those newspapers invoke. As in many of Fevered Sleep’s shows, play is integral and the spirit is joyful; while two-thirds of the piece is choreographed in advance, the final third is improvised. “A lot of that improvised material is just about the performers being in a space with the audience, looking at each other and being present to each other,” says Harradine. What emerges is a playful and tender celebration of the relationships on stage. And alongside the performances, creating space for conversations is a huge part of the project – there’s an accompanying publication, and discussions before, during and after each residency.
While the title may bring to mind recent headlines, Harradine stresses that the company is not interested in courting controversy to sell tickets. “We’re trying to provoke people to question what society seems to tell us about this relationship. It is provocative and it is political, but there’s nothing controversial about it.”
This year’s residencies mark the culmination of almost three years of development and exploration, but they are not the end of the project. Butler hopes that Men & Girls Dance will travel to festivals or generate pop-up events in the street, leaving “little traces of it here and there so it doesn’t disappear”. They will keep it going, she insists, until it’s no longer needed. “My hope is that at some point we’ll be able to stop doing this piece.”
Photo: Karen Robinson.