Joel Brown and Eve Mutso grace the Tramway with 111 vertebrae

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111 is a duet between dancer and wheelchair user Joel Brown (Candoco Dance and Axis Dance) and former principal ballerina Eve Mutso (Scottish Ballet), commissioned by Unlimited (delivered by Shape and Artsadmin). It played at Tramway, Glasgow on 18 and 19 October as part of its Unlimited Festival. Review by Joe Turnbull

a female dancer poses with her hands around the face of a male dancer

Eve Mutso and Joel Brown in ‘111’

To be spineless is to be cowardly or lack conviction. The spine is metaphorically seen as the core, of both an individual, and a group; the spine must be strong. The spine also acts as the main supporting structure of the body. But what implications do these semantic connotations have for someone with an impaired spine?

The title of this show derives from Joel Brown having 11 working vertebrae (out of 33) and his perception that his collaborator Eve Brown, is so virtuosic that she appears to have 100. Through a series of sequences, many inspired by letters and provocations sent back and forth between them, the pair explore themes of power, strength, control and vulnerability with unerring poise and poignancy.

The juxtaposition of a wheelchair-using dancer and a principal ballerina feels apposite to explore such themes; the former – impaired from the waist down – has formidable upper body strength; the latter simultaneously associated (rightly or wrongly) with physical prowess and fragility. The confluence is tantalising. It’s immediately apparent that an impaired spine does not mean a lack of strength or fortitude in Brown’s muscular display.

The staging is stripped back to the extreme, with a frame of scaffolding dominating centre stage. It acts as a both a prop for the two dancers to explore their differing physicalities and as a metaphor for the support structure of the spine.

The opening exchanges feel slightly tense and terse as if the pair are sizing each other up, testing their respective limits, both still a little unsure. Brown leans back against the corner of the scaffolding shortly after this exchange, like a boxer against the ropes. Mutso mimics this in the other corner. Perhaps they have been sparring this whole time.

A captivating sequence ensues with them both swinging from the scaffolding. The difference in trajectory owing to their contrasting body shapes – in particular Brown not having the use of his legs – is notable with a different combination of balance and strength used by each. As they hang limp for a few moments they almost look like carcasses strung up in an abattoir; evoking the way dancers must sacrifice their bodies.

Sometimes good lighting means you shouldn’t notice it. In this instance the lighting is striking in bringing a whole other dimension to the visual palette. It casts alluring shadows on the back wall and sides of the stage imbuing many of the set-pieces with richer meaning.

In the shadows, the scaffold makes the dancers look like giant automatons under construction when they rest at its apex. This combined with the shadows the dancers’ bodies create, when combined with Brown’s wheelchair, give an aesthetic nod to transhumanism – the notion of humans augmenting themselves with machines.

In one beautiful moment, Mutso takes Brown onto her shoulders, their shadows combine to make a single entity with lithe ballerina’s legs but hulking biceps; subtly evincing the fluidity of the human form, in a way that feels fitting with current debates around trans and non-binary bodies.

From the cagey beginnings, their movements become more synchronised, like two celestial bodies pulled together in a gravitational spiral. Mutso balances gracefully and effortlessly on Brown’s chair. However, some of the more intimate moments feel a little superfluous and barring the first number, the music didn’t always chime either. 111 also comes across as a series of sequences; most are highly accomplished and are well-paced overall, but not all are entirely coherent. Perhaps some of the sequences could be trimmed, dropped or rearranged.

Ultimately, 111 succeeds as a rumination on vulnerability and support with fecund physicality and a few choice words. All stage performers are vulnerable; especially in shows where pieces of yourself are laid so bare. To help overcome that vulnerability we all need structures of support; whether our spines, our wheelchairs or other scaffolds in our lives. But the most important support of all is the emotional support of friendship, a theme this show explores and exudes in abundance.