Sinners and Saints

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.”

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