(I saw this a week ago at the Dance Umbrella, and decided to submit my review of Hairspray instead.)
Sometimes, even the Fringe can upstage the West End in terms of pure spectacle. Most recently, Compagnie Beau Geste began their Saturday Evening performance of Transports Exceptionnels (Exceptional Transport) by driving a digger through an unsuspecting wedding party's photo session in order to approach the open stage at Jubilee Gardens. What followed was a stunning, albeit obtuse work combining modern dance, classical music, and a massive carbon footprint.
Performed by Philippe Priasso and William Defresne (who drove the aforementioned digger), and choreographed in the round by Dominique Boivin, Transports Exceptionnels takes a look at man and machine, their interactions, and the way in which we personify the tools of our everyday lives. Staged across three pieces of music, the dance begins with Mr. Priasso tentatively approaching the digger, and spends the next half hour dodging, riding, and climbing the great machine with curiosity, trepidation, and affection as dancer and device unite, separate, and struggle against each other.
According to the choreographer's notes in the programme, the piece “relive[s] those childhood moments where proportions take on another dimension, and where the street becomes a playground.” Indeed, while the piece and characters are open to interpretation, there is much to be said about the area surrounding Jubilee Gardens as a playground of street performance, with drummers, mimes, etc. reaching out for tourist coins and attracting an audience which, undoubtedly, got stolen away by the imposing vehicle a few metres away. Surprisingly, the audience included some young schoolboys, undoubtedly drawn in by what must have seemed to an outsider to be construction machinery on crack – a whirling dervish of a digger chasing yet embracing a silent older man. Sadly, these lads did not find the piece as engaging as the rest of the audience, and left after about ten minutes.
In terms of Ms. Boivin's story, the work grants the viewer a fleeting sense of emotion, limited by audience visibility – Mr. Priasso frequently had his back turned to where I was standing, making it difficult to see facial expressions. From my perspective, the piece showed how we grant personalities and form attachments to the machines we use, with Mr. Priasso treating his digger much like a new (and increasingly beloved) pet. The two embrace, fight, play together, and protect one another before the ultimate separation at the end of the work. In a post-performance conversation, some of my fellow audience members had entirely different interpretations - the work is vague enough that it is up to the viewer to take what they feel is appropriate. This is theatre for intellectuals and spectacle enthusiasts, and those who fall in between will likely be quickly bored.
Regarding the dancers, Mr. Priasso is spry and in full control, despite his age, dodging the great bucket from the ground at one moment while hanging by his legs the next. However, the true star is Mr. Defresne, who piloted an imposing piece of equipment into a sympathetic and approachable character while successfully managing to not cause a fatal accident for his partner. The daunting task of rehearsing this piece must have been most stressful, but the payoff is evident.
Other than the view problems caused by the digger, two negative issues lurk in the deepest shadows of this piece. First, the environmental impact of running a commercial digger for 30 min. may strike some as distastefully wasteful, and may find themselves challenged to see the artistic merit of the piece. Second, the digger's rental company was clearly marked in multiple places, giving cynics in the crowd a view that perhaps the entire dance was merely a 30 minute advertisement for DIY extremists. These are minor quibbles, though, and patrons seeking a thought-provoking piece could have done far worse with the mimes by the tube.
Where: Jubilee Gardens as part of Dance Umbrella
RZ unofficial "worth paying": It was free, so there was value for money by default. Had they passed the hat, the RZ would have thrown in a £2 coin, but held back from the bills. He would not have paid £10-15 for this event as a standalone, but perhaps if paired with a few other events and turned into an evening.
RZ other notes: The Dance Umbrella is a month-long festival of contemporary dance from around the world, and is running for three more weeks. Some events are free, others go up to £20/ticket. If you go for this sort of thing, hit it up. The RZ, however, has an increasingly packed schedule and will have to pass.