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Nigel Charnock - 'Frank'

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

October 2, 2006 -- Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London

What is the state of physical theatre in 2006? At least we have Nigel Charnock to prompt us of its vibrancy and to illustrate that it is not just about people taking their clothes off, ranting about the most banal to the most insidious worries of the times, babbling while running around in the audience, lambasting all manner of stage etiquette and decorum, yet making us giggle, gasp, be offended and, most importantly, think.

FRANK was presented as part of Dance Umbrella 2006 at The Place: Robin Howard Dance Theatre in London, UK, on October 2. No credits for the music selections were given, but what was heard ranged from early 20th century jazz to the classics, including a techno version of Michael Jackson. But the music is a side bar to Charnock’s intention to lampoon touchy topics of terrorism, Middle East conflicts, Jews, Hindus, Christians, sex, lesbians, love, the state of dance, and himself, with fleet of tongue and movement.

Charnock begins by stomping on in the dark, hurling himself around cartwheeling and mumbling. When the lights come on, he is barefooted, dressed in white pyjamas, and whipping his arms and legs around, jumping in the air in a centre spotlight, to some Bach chorus. The music then abruptly changes to some techno music something with Charnock still whipping around, jete-ing, and running into the audience, throwing audience members’ coats in the air, tearing up programs and then taking someone’s rucksack to the stage. An audience member moves slowly onto the stage and retrieves it. In this ranting, Charnock notices there are two empty rows of seats in the back of the house. This becomes fodder for Charnock’s escapade, as he curses those not in attendance as well, flinging objects into the air as he manoeuvres through the audience, over seats and bodies, back to the stage. He manipulates a stationary light, arrives centre stage and the music stops. Charnock’s monologue derides critics, satirizes classical ballet, Martha Graham technique, and New Dance while actually doing the particular style being targeted; and doing it very well. While dropping all manner of political and social double entendre, he also comments on what he is doing physically -- “doing this pointie thing” as he walks around on his toes or stating he has to “dance” and that he is “a thinking dancer” as he moves around the stage performing a release based movement phrase. Charnock’s movement and verbal diatribe has some audience members in stitches, others looking aghast, others just sitting back enjoying Charnock’s anarchic theatrics.

Charnock touches on subjects considered to be in a state of crisis within the current politics of life and dance art, while simultaneously illustrating his fluency in movement physically. Later in the performance, Charnock will comment that he is improvising and knows some in the audience will return the second night to make sure he has. Charnock also comments that he can improvise because he is experienced enough; certainly his extensive embodied knowledge and expertise in physical theatre allows him this kind of performance act.

A theme of the evening is divulged as Charnock asks the audience “Why are you here?” Charnock suggests the answers: sex, love, to find a relationship or maybe even art. Charnock gives some autobiographical information and then performs a movement solo to Billie Holiday’s “Them There Eyes” that portrays the words of the song in camp style. There is implied sex with the microphone, and then Charnock moves on to sing, a cappella, Nat Shilkret’s song, “Get Happy”. Moving to the audience, Charnock takes off his white pyjamas and changes into black trousers, a top with sleeves (a label I didn’t catch) and white Reeboks. He sings another a cappella song and then dances to Spanish flamenco type guitar music that dissolves into clichés while Charnock manipulates his shirt over head, twisted and spiralled. Charnock’s ethnic jibs and innuendo cover European and Middle Eastern cultural controversies, and mock Michael Jackson with a comment on paedophiles and sex offenders. Charnock’s danced solo to Michael Jackson techno knockoff is fractured and disjointed, seemingly an imitation of the icon not just degraded by scandal as much as corroded by impropriety.

There seems a moment of addiction, and Charnock’s belt is the object of choice, then a wooden plank is brought on stage. Charnock states openly that he is to improvise with it then goes about positioning the plank on the body to indicate the obvious; ####, earrings, a fence to stand on. Chris Coplan is Charnock’s technical manager keeping the ambience of theatre intact, blue for somber, red for shock, white for stark and lighting the audience when Charnock is running around the auditorium or twisting and pulling at and wrapping himself in the legs and cyclorama. Charnocks sings “God Bless the Child” as he tosses lightly and then hurls with intent toffees at the audience. Charnok riffs and scats as the lights go out, then chants “everything is temporary, only love is necessary”. The music continues as he slips behind the cyclorama with the microphone. Charnock tells a joke in bad taste considering the current cultural crisis about a Jew, a Christian, and a Hindu getting blown up in a restaurant. He then asks the audience if he had crossed the line. Charnock then fakes a suicide with a plastic bag over his head with the microphone in his mouth.

Taking his clothes off again, he throws socks into the audience but members throw them back. Charnock’s rhetoric addresses himself, his age and his experience, stating that because he is this old, he can improvise and, besides, he can’t afford to rehearse. Dressed in black briefs, Charnock’s solo with harpsichord music is the most poignant of the evening, revealing Charnock’s skill at portraying tragedy and rendering parody with ease. In reddish light with the harpsichord music playing, we can imagine a master composer posed at an imagined piano, the metaphor of pianist as dancer, one who composes music; Charnock composes movement, a note struck, a movement taken, piecing together intelligence, movements flowing, the process unfolding. Stroking legs, manipulating feet and twisting arms, seemingly tearing at skin of the torso and clapping of hands, Charnock seems to describe lived experience; certainly Charnock’s muscularity and spine reveal profound ways of knowing. As his fluidity of movement and ease in shifting dynamics settle into the opening tableau, this harpsichord solo seems a revelation, portraying what is inside Charnock; being FRANK about the world within him as well as the world about him.

Charnok answers the question posed at the beginning by telling the audience that they are present to discover the meaning of life. He then plays a harmonica while running around the stage draped in a sheet. Harmonica discarded and still manipulating the sheet, Charnock tells the story of a person who has purchased a diamond worth a trillion dollars and gets on a train in India along with a thief who wants to steal it. The person seemingly abandons his belongings long enough for the thief to search for but not find the diamond. Leaving the train the thief asks the person where the diamond had been hidden. The person then locates the diamond in the thief’s pocket.

The tale is a metaphor. The person is perhaps Charnock, the clown, the insightful one. The thief is perhaps each audience member sitting in the train. The train is perhaps the journey, the performance as lived by everyone as an individual and as a group. The occasion is to find answers to questions posed by the work and lurking within each audience member. Charnock goes on to explain that no matter what one looks for in love, sex, religion, money, art, to find the solutions for the troubles of the world, hate, ethnic strife, those solutions reside within each one of us. This moral tale is Charnock’s diamond to the audience. FRANK, enacted with voice, movement and the most basic of objects found and brought to the space, mirrors chaos and adds a dash of silliness to illustrate questions and offer some answers.

To see Charnock improvise using performative strategies some might think cliché and to make it work, to manoeuvre between satirical and insult with whimsy and pull it off was a revelation. A founding member of DV8 and at the forefront of physical theatre, Charnock has his own kind of performative finesse. Folly, parody and a dash of tragedy, FRANK offered metaphors and a few thought provoking threads complete with symbolism and moral significance to underpin the brazenness. Charnock’s expertise is to dance, sing, sing a cappella, have the energy to jump, rant, speak articulately and improvise structured movement phrases, as well as to deliver lines that chide and stir. In 2006, Charnock has a lot to say textually and physically about a lot of things that affect him and everyone else. One post-show comment indicated exasperation with Charnock’s theatrical strategies. How sad and dismal a remark from someone who must be jaded and not open to the type of magic offered by this extraordinarily skilled artist who, through his particular kind of craft, can make an audience reconsider the world and their place in it.

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