Telling the bitter tale of the Depression’s gruelling dance marathons, Dance Derby packs a mighty punch. Thought-provoking theatre at its best, Company Chordelia’s latest show embraces the cruel audience pleasure of reality shows through its exploration of a six week dance marathon.
The rules, as established by MC Hal Johnson (played by Harry Ward), are simple. The contestants must always remain dancing.They will be rewarded with a 10 minute break every two hours but must continue to dance whilst eating, shaving or even brushing their teeth. As the hours roll by to the ever incomprehensible 600 hours… 800 hours… 1024 hours of constant dance, Ward’s cheerful MC delights in the suffering of the desperate contestants, his treatment of the marathon as a piece of entertainment is horrifying to watch for both the audience and Nadine Livingston’s soprano who grows more and more uncomfortable in her central position, her gestures of sympathy to the exhausted dancers are heartfelt yet powerless.
Throughout the piece, each couple are given a moment in the spotlight to showcase their talents. We are briefly introduced to expectant parents Mary and Eugene (Kally Lloyd-Jones and Vince Virr), experienced dancers Molly and Allan (Katie Armstong and Peter Baldwin), paired together for the purpose of the marathon Eleanor and Joe (Tara Hodgson and Brian Bremner), married couple Muriel-Jane and Arlen (Steinvor Palsson and Michael Sherin) and orphaned siblings Rose and Bill (Beverly Grant and Darren Brownlie). Their spotlight performances, scattered between rounds of eliminations and races, drive the narrative of the piece, developing each couple’s story and their motivation for the coveted final prize of $1000, the fated prize always looming above them in the form of an eye-catching, glittering sign lest the contestants consider admitting defeat.
Accompanied by a selection of distinctive dance numbers from the 1930s, composers ranging from Irving Berlin, Al Dubin and Rodgers & Hart to Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach, the show maintains its intensity till the end; the final scene a particularly powerful moment of bitter triumph as the winning couple quietly embrace their success, the runners up collapsing in distress as the cheerful ‘We’re in the Money’ plays out behind them. The characters’ struggles are heartbreaking to watch, the inevitable collapses and implications still shocking and raw.
Unique in many ways, Dance Derby is a fascinating piece of theatre that is often poignant and distressing. Presented with an incredible flair, the piece’s modern day relevance fuels its powerful impact that leaves audiences questioning their values of entertainment and the cooperation of genuine struggle and cruelty in this entertainment.