Monday, July 20, 2015

'Pole' at the Etcetera Theatre, 18th July 2015

I've only ever been to one pole dancing club - part of a depressing stag do. The place was a grubby upstairs in Manchester's Chinatown, where damp walls and stained floors were masked by strobes and neon lights. It was awful; zombified women mechanically grinding away to an audience that looked like they'd stepped out of a Daniel Clowes illustration. The experience was about as erotic as feeding time at a hyena enclosure, confirming pretty much everything I'd suspected about these places.

Pole gets elbow deep in the what, why and how of these clubs, as well as exploring the various ways in which pole dancing is perceived. As an exercise class, pole dancing is bordering on de rigueur, a conspicuous and commercially cheeky activity for bored housewives to rekindle some lost spark of sexiness. Then there's the enthusiasm for pole as a gymnastic and dance discipline; an aesthetic appreciation of the impressive human pretzels the best performers contort themselves into. Finally, ominously, comes the salubrious strip clubs where trafficked women are ritually humiliated in front of braying men.

The three performers, Amy Bellwood, Anais Alvarado and Lyndal Marwick, adopt broadly sketched roles - each of which acts as a vehicle for the various perspectives on pole. As verbatim theatre, we should assume that the stories we hear are, in one way or another, true. This is underlined by three extremely sincere, naturalistic performances that give the show a firm emotional and intellectual core.

I know what you're thinking, right? Sure, a pole dancing show with a firm intellectual core - pull the other one. Well I'm not kidding, Pole really is firmly targeted at the head rather than the crotch. Then again I can't reasonably ignore the intense eroticism throughout. After all, these are three extremely attractive women in revealing skintight outfits pulling sexy poses. I try my best to remain objective, but a shapely butt provocatively wiggling in my general direction bypasses almost all of my critical faculties.

But Pole makes no bones about being erotic - indeed, the company has fashioned eroticism into a weapon with which to needle the audience. Though we begin with the world of fun, naughty pole dancing workouts, we gradually descend into human trafficking, eventually arriving at a hellish world of imprisoned women being gang-raped to keep them in line.

This portion of the show is bleak as hell: the details of the dancer's treatment, environments and mental health soberly laid out in evocative, precise language. These are the dark consequences of 'a bit of cheeky leching'; the endpoint of lust for women objectifying themselves. We come to see the disjunct between audience and performer, one able to enjoy a no strings attached erotic experience, the other locked into personal, financial and often literal bondage.

This is powerful stuff - so powerful that it obscures the stated message of pole dancing being a way for a woman to 'safely and joyfully express her sensuality and femininity'. By the end I couldn't help but see the pole as an enormous metallic phallus; a prison cell composed of a single iron bar. Though the poses are smoothly held with easy smiles, there's an inescapable tinge of submission to them; the dancer in thrall to a symbol of immovable masculinity.

Pole is powerful stuff, perhaps a bit too powerful. There's a thread of evangelism for pole dancing as a fun, empowering pursuit throughout most of the piece - and if you ignore the sex trafficking section this would be a fine advertisement for the art as a fun hobby. Yet dark clouds are never far offstage; a miasma of oppression, dehumanisation and objectification that engulfs the positive aspects we hear.

This theatre, fascinatingly combines social activism, gymnastics and forthright eroticism. All three performers impress, the bandages and plasters that adorn their limbs standing as testament to their skill and commitment. Pole is intelligent, ambitious and exhausting to watch - but don't go if you're after cheap titillation. You'll end up (quite rightly) feeling like shit.


Pole is at Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe from 7-31st August 2015. Tickets here.

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