As we enter, two men stand on the stage stark naked, smiling sweetly and making eye contact with each audience member in turn. When everyone is seated in front of them, the voice in the headphones which were handed out before we came in tells us: "please be aware that this performance may contain nudity". This is one of only a handful of moments in the hour-long piece where there is any connection between what is going on onstage and the words we are hearing. And even then it is not a straightforward mapping; it is inverted and dripping with irony.
And so the piece goes on, the woman's voice in our ears telling us stories and asking us to imagine things which are not obviously related to the movements of the two men on the stage. They put on different clothing and stand at various distances apart from one another, moving around the space as if guided by some exterior voice; it doesn't appear to be the one we can hear. The audience searches for meaning amongst an apparent lack of it. Is there some sort of symbolism? Is he about to start doing something she tells him to? Is he dancing to the same music I can hear? Why aren't they following her instructions? There are no answers to these or any of the questions posed by the piece. But the audience cannot help but continue to ask them, because the format encourages it. The use of headphones for all of the auditory elements of the piece, as well as the initial eye contact, give a sense of isolation and thus individual responsibility to understand what is going on. Ultimately, we are faced with the absurd in the literary sense of the term: there is a black hole which opens up between our search for meaning and the fruitlessness of this quest.
Absurdism in theatre can be hilarious and it can be world-shattering. It can be really powerful in its subversion of reality, reminding those who watch that everything in theatre and indeed within life is a constructed illusion (think Waiting for Godot). But it can also be frustrating, exclusive and alienating. In Dancing Bear, Dancing Bear, the relationship between words and actions is so obscure that I left the theatre with no immediate sense of something learned or gained. I yearned for some symbol, some sign, some reference, right to the end of the piece, and was left disappointed. But perhaps this was entirely the point, and it was powerful. Maybe it didn't satisfy me, but it certainly provoked a reaction.
But how does the gender question, which Dancing Bear, Dancing Bear purports to explore, fare in the face of obscurity and meaninglessness? You could certainly make an analogy between searching for meaning in the play - for symbolism or cohesion - and searching for any sort of constant feature of binary gender or basis for it: you'll be confronted with the constructed nature of that too. The voice tells us "men and women are different, they have different bodies". But what is in a body? The woman tells us "my body is the body of a woman" but she doesn't tell us what that means, and we haven't seen it. We are encouraged to find confirmation of her gender in her voice, and her words. By contrast, we have seen the bodies of the two men on the stage, and they are referred to as men, but we haven't heard them speak. And indeed, as they put on different clothes and take different gendered poses, or writhe around on the floor like they are having sex, they show us that performance of masculinity or indeed femininity is not defined by genitalia but is just that: performance. Gender, we are shown, is much more complicated than just bodies. In this message Dancing Bear, Dancing Bear is clear. Go and watch it if you can, because it is one of those shows where my perception of it counts only for me.