Humans and Animals

Jeni Allison

Photo: Roy Campbell Moore

Janis Claxton Dance Company famously performed Enclosure 44 – Humans as part of the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Enclosure 44 – Humans was a dance piece exploring the relationship between movement of animals and movement of humans. This type of exploration harks back to Simone Forti’s experiments in animal behaviour from the Judson Church Dance Movement in the 1960s, however Claxton’s company brought it up to date by situating Enclosure 44 in a real (albeit empty) enclosure in Edinburgh Zoo. The zoo remained open to the public, who were confronted with human’s imitating animals rather than the real thing.

This subversion of expectations; humans instead of animals, humans moving like animals was instrumental in the creation of a dynamic piece of work. Claxton has continued with this theme in her latest work, Humanimalia, which sees five dancers perform animal-inspired movements and behaviours. This time, the work is presented in performing arts venues across Scotland. The more conventional setting allows for experimentation in staging and lighting. The stage remains sparse throughout the performance, apart from two glass cages on lockable wheels, which are often pushed, pulled and inhabited by the dancers. Aside from the animalistic overtones these seem to say something more, especially in the context of an all-female performance. Women in cages banging their bodies against in the sides in frustration and fear cannot help but have some sexual overtones, especially whilst the other dancers look on, voyeuristically.

This watered down S&M aesthetic is prevalent in the mainstream, especially music (yes Rihanna, I’m looking at the likes of you), and has unfortunately become a bit cliché. It seemed a shame that Humanimalia couldn’t have tackled this is a more contextually aware manner. Presenting ‘avant-garde’ in a guise so similar to mainstream cannot help but invite unwanted comparisons. Similarly towards the end of the performance one dancer removes her top, and is covered in raw bacon by another dancer. Any women-as-meat points were unfortunately swept away instantly by Lady Gaga ‘Meat Dress’ references.

Voyeurism is something which is constantly explored throughout the performance, as some dancers move whilst others watch. There are few times when all dancers will move in unison, which mimics the slow (some may say monotonous) nature of watching laxidasical zoo animals. However, I think the point is slightly laboured. The dancers consistently return to somewhat obvious animalistic movements; surrounding prey, surveying the territory, timid exploration of another’s body. There is also a sequence where a live feed video of the audience is projected onto the wall opposite the audience. I get it, we’re watching them, it’s like in a zoo where humans watch animals. Something more subtle could perhaps have worked better.

Having said this, some of the contact work, especially in the duets was really well executed, and overall a lot of the movement was entertaining. I just wish that either it had been in the zoo, where obvious animals references could have been overlooked on fact that the setting was apt, or that the performance had perhaps hinted at the theme, but not so explicitly.

Humanimalia, Tramway Friday 4th March 2011


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