It might appear to occupy the space occupied by cynical commercialism, but Stomp, now in its 22 year, is a work of legitimate, utterly original and dynamic physical theatre. It all started in Brighton, in England, and just goes to show: crowd-pleasing is crowd-pleasing, sometimes at least, because it’s downright thrilling. Shaun Parker & Company seemed to come from nowhere, exploding onto the Australian and international dance scene in similar fashion.
The Stomp set is like a hybrid of (for anyone that remembers) Top Cat’s animated back alley, Sesame Street and a derelict dead end from NYPD Blue. Or something. It’s a world populated by jump and jetsam, dreck and detritus. All of it discarded, as useless. All of it useful. Watching and listening is an object lesson in resourcefulness, inventiveness and creativity, apart from anything else. Shopping trolleys. Garbage cans and lids. Zippo lighters. Matchboxes. Newspapers. Plastic bags. Body parts (still attached). Just about everything you can think of is persuasive fair game.
Parker’s set, for Happy As Larry, isn’t as elaborate and somewhat dwarfed by the massive stage of Seymour’s Everest Theatre (by contrast, Stomp‘s fills virtually every square centimetre of the Theatre Royal’s). But the streetwise aesthetic is common. For Larry, Adam Gardnir has devised a huge, rotating blackboard as the centrepiece, alluding to both the orthodoxy, implicit conventional morality, “right thinking” and values of elementary education, as well as the rebelliousness and free thinking implied by graffiti. And it’s well-chalked by the end.
I’ve no idea whether Stomp (a little like, say, TaikOz) has becomes a kind of training school, in which apprentices are progressively moved up into starring roles, or not; whether applicants have to be accomplished drummers to begin with, or receive ‘on-the-job’ instruction, but the fact is all participants boast impeccable timing, even if the more confident and experienced members may be easily identifiable. It’s a show would be impressive, to say the least, on musical grounds alone. But there’s a lot more to it than primal percussion. There’s clowning, colour, character, narrative and intelligent spectacle. All of it is premised on ideas, innovation and wit. For all I know Parker may operate along similar lines, as a kind of conveyor-belt academy. (This isn’t meant to imply anything in the slightest pejorative: on the contrary, it’s intended to point to an ongoing, democratic induction process.)
Just like the eclectic assortment of bibs and bobs they use to bang and clang, the Stompists themselves are a motley crew: all shapes and sizes, but all fabulously fit. Each takes on a role and persona, which remains consistent throughout. There’s even an arbitrary pecking order that adds still more interest and peppers proceedings with mock conflicts. But while Stomp relies of a minutiae of ingenuity, evident in the premises for what amount to scenes, or vignettes, Parker begins with a more highfalutin, thematic idea, which seeks to interrogate the nature of happiness; a big subject for a small dance-theatre work. This is fine insofar as it goes, but it’s probably better approached and enjoyed by losing oneself in the choreography which, at its best, seamlessly embraces ballet and breakdance; as well as other athletic pursuits, like rollerskating. At times, the ensemble work looks (choreographically) loose and messy but the level of dance skill is as profound as the percussive and theatrical talents of Stomp. The score for Larry, by Nick Wales and Bree van Reyk, is effective and engaging enough, but pales in comparison with the drama of Stomp‘s self-generated live one.
There’s wisdom in not trying to express intellectual notions in a physical way. Parker seems to be a little hung-up on the Enneagram, a psychological system (as the name implies, in Greek) that maps nine personality types. It goes back to Gurdjieff and, even in its more modern incarnation, is regarded as somewhat outside the realm of academic psychology, finding greater favour in, say, the cult and shifting sands of business management models. So, my guess is, you’ll struggle to discern the perfectionist, or distinguish him, or her, from the giver, or the performer. I would’ve thought, speaking of Gurdjieff and an exploration of happiness, the Russian spiritual guru’s proposition that we predominantly live our lives in a state of “waking sleep” would be more fertile and flexible. The irony is, even though Larry seeks to interpolate rather sophisticated concepts, Stomp comes off as the more intelligent show.
You could probably judiciously cut 10 to 15 minutes from both shows and make them sharper and more satisfying, but the edit would especially benefit Larry.
Of course, you might be infuriated by my audacity in stacking these two up against each other. But, for most people, I expect, entertainment dollars are severely limited and judgement calls must be made. Quite apart from the fact that seasons often bump up against one another. On the fare of it, you mightn’t think these two would have much in common, but closer inspection and reflection suggests otherwise. For example, both offer the benefit of universal language: rhythm, dance, music and physical theatre comprise an Esperanto of sorts, one that’s caught far better than the would-be, ubiquitous, constructed language. Both these works would translate, pretty much, to practically any cultural context and be well-understood. If the apparent diversity of audience members at either is any guide, it’s a key strength of both works.
Some will sniff at Stomp‘s playfully suggestive humour, such as when one player produces a bigger hose than the other, but given the universality it’s going for, that’s a pompous conceit. And it’s done with a comic sensibility that’s the best of British. Besides, even if you baulk at such things, you can hardly complain about the subtlety that insinuates itself from the very start, when one of the team saunters on stage with a broom, establishing a rhythm with it, before being joined, progressively, by other ‘cleaners’.
The finest aspects of both shows are the gritty, working-class, on-the-street allusions which, in both cases, chime ingenuously and the depth of skill with which each and every move is executed. Professionalism, prowess and polish are adjectives which leap to mind. In the case of Stomp, especially, you’re likely to feel inspired and energised for hours, if not days.
The details: Stomp played the Theatre Royal on September 10-15; Happy As Larry played the Seymour Centre on September 10-14.