Have you ever been in a restaurant enjoying your food, perhaps a juicy steak or a spicy jambalaya, and the waitress has asked if “everything’s OK with your meal”? And you’ve said yes, but actually meant no? Have you ever tried to avoid someone you recognise by crossing the street so that you didn’t have to speak to them? Have you ever tried to connect with someone, but they just missed the point?
The intricacies of human nature are what Stories from a Crowded Room is all about. It’s about love and loss, rejection and companionship, anger and solitude. What Earthfall has accomplished in this magnificently immersive dance performance is highly effective, affecting and intensely personal to those gathered to observe.
Although the audience doesn’t so much observe the show as experience it. There are no seats, the audience is simply ushered into an enclosed white space and it is the paying spectator who forms part of the overall piece just through their physical presence. The show lasts a straight hour and the audience is encouraged to move around the space at will as the performance unravels before them, around them, behind them and sometimes at their feet.
The stories that play out through dance, music and monologue are about what it’s like to be human, what it’s like to feel. Those times when we really need some support but nobody is there to offer it, when we feel alone in a room full of people but dare not say a thing. Those times when we don’t feel like giving of ourselves despite appeals for attention.
I particularly liked the lyrical monologue about love, how it opens up your chest and someone can climb inside you, and destroy you if they wish. It’s an interesting way to define love, but manages to do it so well.
Rejection forms a strong thread through the piece, with dancers hurling themselves at one another, sometimes being caught, more often being dropped to the ground. There are dance routines in unison, but many more are disparate. In one section a young man desperately tries to get others to notice him, to help him, but they all turn away and reject his appeals, and as these rejections get faster, you really feel for him. This is helped enormously by Alex Marshall Parsons’ compassionate, heartfelt performance, and as the audience is encouraged to gather round Alex in the centre of the space, he finds solace in speaking to us. He apologies for all the faults he believes have turned people away from him. Alex apologised to my partner for not replacing the loo roll, and he apologised to others for having cold hands, or for not being able to drive. It makes for an intimate and very personal experience for the entire audience as you are made part of the narrative.
Being part of the piece is key to its success, but it never pushes the interaction so far as to intimidate the audience. Nobody has to do anything, nobody has to dance or sing or speak if they don’t wish to. But there is always the possibility you’ll influence the flow of the routines simply by standing where you are, or moving where you do. It’s incredibly intimate stuff, and interactive in a non-alienating way.
At one point I found Jessica Haener curled around my feet, perhaps asleep, perhaps homeless. When she rose up, she offered her hand for me to help her to her feet, and thanked me, before sashaying off into the throng. That was a moment just she and I had, nobody else, and it is the gifting of these tiny moments that you take away as personal, unique memories.
You occasionally forget the music is live, but there are times when the drummer or vocalist or guitarist becomes unavoidably part of the melee, moving into and through and around the performance. The skills on show here are impressive, the sound moving from ethereal, Enya-like moods to full-on rock tracks. The vocals are fantastic, especially the closing section sung by a young lady with a Bjork-like fragility and porcelain-fresh face. A beautiful way to end it all.
Perhaps the greatest bit of fun is the initial expectation before it all begins. You’re all strangers in a strange room, just waiting for the unknown to commence, but I quickly got the feeling that some of these strangers were actually dancers, and it was great fun trying to pick out the performers from the spectators. I soon realised some of my fellow audience members might well have wondered if I was a dancer, as I was considering them the same way. It’s interactive even before it starts, making you think about those strangers before anything has happened.
Seeing Stories from a Crowded Room is to be part of a unique experience. The dance movements, I’m sure, are pretty much the same from show to show, but they are mere touchstones for the dancers to move between. The real star of the show is you, and it’s a privilege to be surrounded by such talented accomplices!
Conceived by: Jim Ennis, Jessica Cohen, Mike Brookes
Director: Jessica Cohen, Jim Ennis
Choreography and words: Rosalind Haf Brooks, Jess Haener, Eric Matin Kamosi, Sebastian Langueneur, Rachael O’Neill, Alex Marshall Parsons, Iain Payne, Beth Powlesland, Lara Ward, Rhian Williams
Music: Rhian Williams, Eric Martin Kamosi, Felix Otaola