views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Applause Project
The Blue Elephant Theatre
1st May 2013


Photography © Jonathan Vines

The show's title may suggest otherwise, but The Applause Project is constructed around complete failure - every performer's nightmare of completely bombing on stage. We don't know if it was inspired by a real experience - the quality of the dancers suggests not - but the emotions captured in each step certainly feel genuine. We witness hope, anticipation, anxiety and sheer anguish. These feelings are further amplified thanks to the original music from Francis Western-Smith, which manages to be both beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

Sarah Hitch, Claudia Palazzo, Kate Szkolar and Harriet Waghorn perform a number of short dances, which all draw from the same collection of limited steps, but it feels like choreographer Zosia Jo Dowmunt is building a story gradually, teasing us with little details, rather than being repetitive.

At the end of each dance, the audience are instructed to try to clap first, last, not at all, in a particular rhythm. Initially, this brings a small amount of very British confusion, then rapidly, competitiveness takes over as the audience tries to outclap each other. The concept ties neatly into the narrative on stage, but it leaves the show's success completely at the mercy of whoever turns up on any given night. Their enthusiasm or lack thereof mean that this could easily be a five-star piece once evening, and a one-star the next. Dowmunt is brave, it's usual for performers to feed off their spectators' energy, it's less so for this to be so integral.

Of course, by challenging us to clap last or not at all, this can lead to lengthy pauses where the dancers are waiting in silence for validation. The beauty of this work is that if there are any such gaps, life imitates art, and the lack of applause just becomes part of the narrative - even if, at times, it does make the audience feel awkward.

The theatre itself is reset as a dance floor, the first time we've seen the stage in this configuration, with the seats removed and coloured lines taped down, cutting through the black expanse. The audience are invited to bring a cushion from upstairs with them, and sit behind a particular line, constantly shuffling around. We've never had a restricted view from any of the seats in The Blue Elephant, but moving around throughout a show certainly brings a fresh perspective.

Technically, the dancers' poise is strong and elegant, and they interact with each other well. They are all very expressive, with Hitch in particular excelling at this. However the ensemble can be slightly out of sync with each other, a fraction of a second too close for it to be obvious whether this delay is a fault of the performance, or a considered choice from Dowmunt. But this is one small question mark in an otherwise well-communicated idea.

The Applause Project is a playful, intelligent concept, well-suited to the quirkiness of the venue. If you turn up with an open mind - and flat shoes - you may be surprised where the piece takes you.

The Applause Project opened on 1st May and runs until 4th May 2013.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)

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