Are we good or evil? Do we go through life as sinners or as saints? Whether we personally are one or the other, we all seem to need to identify and categorize our icons according to this dichotomy. Every day, the news bombards us with characters to revile or heroes to emulate, and very little exists in between.
But is it really that simple? This is the question being asked by the cutting-edge British dance company Stan Won’t Dance in Sinner. Heroes and villains, or sinners and saints may seem like heady, dark images for a dance performance, but this promises to be no ordinary dance, as it is described by the company as a “self-destructive solo for two men.” Company member, dancer, and co-creator Liam Steel spoke to me recently about the intense emotional and physical nature of the piece that will explode onto the Campbell Hall stage in its U.S. premiere on Wednesday, February 22.
To explore questions of identity, Stan Won’t Dance combines dance and theater with words and the body, but before you assume that this is an intellectual exercise, understand that the two performers interweave voice and body to create character. “The physicality of the piece is quite brutal,” Steel admitted in a recent phone conversation, between rehearsal sessions in Cambridge, England. “The nonstop movement is exhausting, but it brings up the notion of being on a train that doesn’t stop, destiny that doesn’t stop, and a treadmill you can’t get off.”
The original point of departure for the piece was the infamous London nail-bomber, David Copeland. In a personal political statement of acute racism and homophobia, Copeland bombed a series of London bars in 1999. Sinner is not a biographical sketch of Copeland; rather, it examines the issue of what might make a person perform acts we see as diabolical.
Sinner begins with a bag being left in a bar, an image weighted with meaning when the piece was first created, and one that unfortunately continues to be topical in today’s world of suicide bombers and bomb scares. The simple notion of a bag being left thus takes on new meaning, forcing us to question our relationships with the people around us, and asking us what we would do in such a situation. Character is an important part of performance for Steel, whose background is in theater. Along with co-creator Rob Tannion, Steel was a longtime member of British physical theater company DV8. The film version of DV8’s Cost of Living was shown last year during the Arts & Lectures film series. The two were joined by writer Ben Payne to develop Sinner, which was sparked by questions raised by tragic events. For the U.S. tour, accomplished dancer Ben Wright (he has performed in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake) is stepping into Tannion’s role. Tannion is currently in Toronto serving as one of the choreographers for the stage adaptation of Lord of the Rings.
For the performers, Sinner is a challenging piece. This is not only because of its physicality, but also because of the in-your-face nature of the emotions expressed by the characters. But, although it explores dark subject matter, Sinner is not uniformly dark. Steel says that people are often surprised by the humor found in the performance.
“Ultimately, we can all be labeled sinners in the end.” And in Sinner, the audience’s perception of who is the saint and who is the sinner changes throughout. This is intentional. “We’ve set the notion of identity on its head,” insists Steel. And through the sheer physicality of the piece, he is attempting to set that idea in motion, literally turning bodies in space. In the end, though, what is the answer to the question?
“It is complex. There is a twist; we can’t give it away,” Steel said when asked about resolution of the piece. But resolution is not necessarily what Steel’s approach to theater involves. “I don’t want to preach. … I feel that theater is not about giving answers to life. It is about raising questions. … If people leave questioning themselves and the world, then I am doing my job as a theater-maker.”