Thank You Very Much, a co-commission between Manchester International Festival, National Theatre of Scotland and Perth Festival in association with tanzhaus nrw and Dance Umbrella, sees Claire Cunningham and an ensemble of Tanja Erhart, Dan Daw and Vicky Malin explore the world of Elvis Presley tribute acts. It played Couper Institute, Glasgow 31 October – 3 November. Review by Joe Turnbull.
There was a moment, before the show had even properly begun when Claire Cunningham – a short, blonde disabled woman perching against her crutches like a seat – in the simple act of putting on a leather jacket had already embodied the swagger of the king of Rock N Roll. We all put on costumes to some extent, affect mannerisms gleaned from elsewhere and present an image of ourselves as we’d like to be (or we think we should be) seen – at work, on nights out, on our social media profiles.
For tribute acts, this behaviour is hyper-concentrated and honed-in on another individual. But as this all-star, all-disabled ensemble showed, this act of embodiment is often imposed, especially on disabled people; by family, teachers, physiotherapists. All in the name of wearing the costume of normativity, of conforming to an idealised body so as not to upset the sensitivities of society at large.
Thank You Very Much is a tantalisingly taut and highly original piece of work which flicks quicker than the pelvis of The King himself between elation and despair, humour and poignancy. This balancing act is demonstrated quite brilliantly by Cunningham as she suspends herself on one crutch and a 1950s-style microphone letting out a tremulous wince as she almost topples over – except it’s not a wince at all, it’s another Elvis affectation.
The usual unspoken stiffness of a contemporary dance show is shattered before the show even starts. The stage acts as costume-changing area, with the real action taking place on the ‘dancefloor’ in front. A small illuminated white stage sits in one corner, the audience dispersed all around the edges of the performance area, many of them at tables, cabaret-style.
The performers made their way through the crowd chatting informally before the show started. Cunningham explains at the top that they’re in “the business of taking care, not taking care of business,” – people can come and go as they please. In the spirit of ‘crip time,’ says Cunningham, things will take as long as they need to.
It’s hard to describe Thank You Very Much as dance piece at all, yes there are some standout moments of movement, but it’s just as much a confessional, a piece of storytelling with flashes of audience participation to boot. It’s transcendental in more ways than one, and that’s to its great credit.
The piece is driven by the voices of the tribute acts, recordings of whom are piped in. Tribute acts are often the subjects of derision and ridicule but here they are treated with reverence, as the experts in their own lived experience – something disabled people are rarely afforded. It unfolds with each performer telling the story of shadowing a different tribute act. Whilst this gives the piece a clear structure, it did border on becoming a little formulaic with each performer’s section quite siloed off. Cunningham does not usually work with ensembles, and I wonder if this was a result of a desire to give everyone an equal spotlight.
Thank You Very Much has a lot to say about disability representation and it does just come out and say it. In contemporary dance, themes and subtext are usually ‘shown’; explored subtly through movement and allusion. Here, it’s simply spelt out – quite literally – a whiteboard with ‘observations’ about how Elvis’s movements were appropriated from African American culture added to the sense this was a little didactic.
But there’s an inherent benefit to this approach too. For starters, it’s a lot more accessible than the often-impenetrable mystifying and over-intellectualised aspects of contemporary dance at its worst. It allowed for flashes of real tenderness – in both senses of the word. When Dan Daw speaks about his experiences with his physio as a child and coming to the realisation that like tribute acts he had to pretend to be someone he wasn’t, but unlike tribute acts he had no agency in the matter, it’s a visceral punch to the gut.
The audience interaction, far from being cringe-worthy or tokenistic, conjures up all sorts of delightful power dynamics. When Daw pleadingly asks if someone will help him there’s a palpable uneasiness.
He shows the unwitting volunteer how to walk a straight line, something which his impairment makes difficult. Then the tables are turned as the volunteer is thrust into the spotlight and posited as an interviewer asking Daw a set of questions she is presented with on a card. As interviewer, she ostensibly holds the power, yet she is completely at the mercy of the machinations around her.
The duet between Cunningham and Tanja Erhart, who also dances with crutches, but with three points of contact to the former’s four, is a thing of unabashed brilliance wrought with poise, vulnerability and warmth. And for all the testimony, the most powerful point was made when the ensemble, each grunting and panting, made their own jerky Elvis moves in a line. It felt uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic as the parallels between a crip movement vocabulary and Elvis’s own syncopated, broken gestures were (almost) silently expressed.
The exit was befitting of Elvis leaving the building. The audience was made to hold the microphone in turn to Cunningham’s mouth with their clamouring hands, as she serenaded us one last time. This rumination on the act of performance, fierce and unashamedly told from a disability perspective, is nothing less than a rhinestone-studded piece of magic.