Elephant in the Room and The Upside Down Man: Can I say something to you…?

Mohamed Toukabri in The Upside Down Man. Photo by Emilie Jacomet

My train journey is disrupted by the loud mobile call of a nearby passenger. Unable not to eavesdrop I am given a glimpse of this man’s world. Every life has a story, not all of us are willing or able to tell our tales but in Friday’s Double Bill at Dance East two young men in solo performances retold their experiences in voice, physical theatre and dance.

Elephant in the Room created and performed by Lanre Malaolu is a disturbing work about issues of mental health and manhood. He portrays the stigma of speaking out about depression, of the fear of admitting to fragility or weakness. The performance oscillates between humorous imaginary interchanges with a friend in a fast food restaurant; pep talks given to a boy’s football team and darker moments of mental torment and self-deprecation. Lanre creates a fine balance between these two states to invite us to hear what he is saying but there are moments when he loses our attention.

Elephant in the Room by Lanre Malaolu. Photo by Camilla Greenwell
Elephant in the Room by Lanre Malaolu. Photo by Camilla Greenwell

The choreography between the voice and the movement, although well considered, created a distance between himself and the audience which was distracting and made me feel uncomfortable rather than moved.

In the second work we are transported to the apparently lighter world of Mohamed Toukabri in The Upside Down Man. We are each greeted by a handshake by Mohamed which sets the tone for the rest of the evening. We are spun into his story through his softly spoken Tunis accent and mesmerising body movement. It is the story of his family, his love of dance within the complexity of a Muslim culture and constant migration. The choreography of this work is beautifully nuanced and coherent.

Mohamed Toukabri in The Upside Down Man. Photo by Emilie Jacomet
Mohamed Toukabri in The Upside Down Man. Photo by Emilie Jacomet

The audience is captivated by film footage of his father and mother dancing unselfconsciously in their home which is skilfully elided with text, voice, music and movement. We listen to what Mohamed has to tell us and are held spellbound in the final moments as he spins upside down centre stage. It is a perfect end as we are transported with him to the in-between space of identity of which he speaks.

It has been a brave experiment on the part of Dance East to programme two Double Bills in the last month. But is it possible not to draw threads, to make comparisons, to put one thing up against an other when two works are billed on the same night? Caught up with the breath and light of Mohamed’s work I could not help but feel that the darker work of Lanre had missed a trick by being a little too dense and heavy. Who would not prefer to be taken to ‘the splendour of the mystery zone’ and linger there a little longer?

Reviewed at Dance East Ipswich on June 21st 2019 by Anna Mortimer

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