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“There is nothing so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength”St Francis de Sales.
Five years ago, choreographer and AD of Hit The Ground Running Dance Theatre Company Michael Heatley consulted with the CREE group, based at the Waddington Street Centre in Durham. The group (all male) spoke about societal expectations, their understanding of masculinity and their mental health. From there Macho was born. I was lucky enough to see Macho in it’s first, experimental stage, back in 2016 at Dance City, Newcastle. I was moved then, and I am moved again by it’s digital reimagining.
Heatley’s piece begins with dancer Jackson Watson addressing an audience, stand-up comedy style. A laugh track plays, but Watson’s statements are not funny, far from it. From there, we move to a bar. Not just any bar but that of Easington Welfare Centre, a venue which was previously known to many as a Working Men’s Club. This choice of location places us firmly in the realm of working class masculinity; where attitudes change more slowly and “real men” don’t discuss their feelings. These ideas are familiar to me, Heatley and I are from the same world.
The two dancers have a beautifully symbiotic relationship; the differences in their skillsets and training work in their favour to communicate the message. Jackson Watson’s training in breaking and street dance conveys his character’s battle with his own mind brilliantly. The choreography at this point is brutish. It’s as though the character’s struggle with gravity mirrors his internal strife. There are moments of tenderness too, unexpected stillness and suspension. McGowan’s character acting as support, allowing release in his partner and encouraging fluency. At this point the lifts and holds are often power struggles, with one dancer breaking away, symbolically refusing help. The displays of bravado and physical aggression particularly resonated with me. At times, the choreography even mimicked gorilla-esque chest beating and pacing, reminding me of the bestial nature of this posturing.
Over the course of the piece, the choreography transforms, with open comparison between versions of masculinity made clear in the difference between breaking and ballet; followed by fluidity and cooperation in the final phase. When the dancers eventually perform the same choreography at the same time it is joyful, revelatory. They are working as a team rather than in opposition. At times the duo adopt boxing stances and wrestling holds which segue into fluent lifts. The whole piece is stunning, though a few images stand out, including the dancers literally backing each other into corners of the boxing ring and blood spouting from a mouth after a punch.
Using the locations of bar, boxing ring and snooker table firmly roots this piece in traditional masculine arenas, juxtaposing the firm friendships often found there with the potential for toxic behaviours. Members of the CREE group perform as supporting artists which cleverly adds another level of meaning to the piece. The music is well chosen, sometimes unobtrusive, sometimes integral. Jonathon Ackley’s camera angles are generally very effective, especially in the over-the-shoulder shots through the drinkers in the bar.
Use of speech is sparse and compelling, just enough to prompt questions and provoke a visceral response. I would have liked to hear more individual words in the heckling section so I had a clearer picture of what was being said. I also understand the costume choices in the first two sections but found that the lighting and dark clothing often worked against each other and I missed the facial expressions and more intricate movements a couple of times.
In this hyper-male, working class world, performative masculinity is necessary for survival, feelings are seen as feminine and femininity is weak. The North-East has the highest rate of male suicide in the UK; meaning Macho is a very important piece. The final frame of the film states “Where there’s talk, there’s hope” and Macho is a fantastic tool in enabling these much-needed conversations.
Macho Digital is available to view online at Macho Digital’s YouTube page.