Review – New Art Club, Big Bag of Boom
Cast aside your scepticism, writes Paul Fleckney, and let contemporary dance parodists New Art Club hop, shimmy and parade their way into your heart
Comedy dance. A tricky one to sell, I imagine. Regulars at Soho Theatre probably regard themselves as a pretty open-minded bunch when it comes to comedy, but it's that dance bit ... Throw that in and it's all "whoa whoa, what d'ya think you're doin' sunshine?"
Well, regardless of how incongruous a comedy contemporary dance show sounds on paper (and how tricky it is to describe), the fact is that New Art Club works. It's funny. Some of it, very. Big Bag of Boom is a greatest hits set of their previous three shows, and these gigs are among their most high-profile to date, so they assume that most people here tonight are seeing them for the first time.
The duo, Tom Roden and Pete Shenton, all stubble and rock band hair, eschew the more common dynamic of straight man/goofy one, instead operating on a more even keel. Which is actually quite refreshing. They start out by gently introducing us to the idea that audience participation will feature at some point, and they gradually earn our trust by inviting us to close our eyes for a few seconds, then to open them, our reward being a visual punchline (it's a trust that goes unabused, incidentally).
And it's visual humour that New Art Club excel in. Think of it as like a Bill Bailey for the eye instead of the ear. In the same way that Bailey knows music inside out, New Art Club knows how dance works – the tropes, the conventions, the techniques – and then they subvert them. The most obvious source of humour is when they puncture the pomposity of contemporary dance, such as with opener I Did This, in which they hop, shimmy and parade around the stage earnestly pretending every movement is loaded with meaning. Backed up by 'knowing' looks to the audience. "Get what we're saying," those looks say, "yeeeeeah."
It's more than just sarcasm though. I Did This takes us on an absurdist journey as they commentate on their routine and it works beautifully; a take on English barn dancing ("strip the willow!" and the like) is performed with an imaginary gaggle of children. Again, an absolute beaut. The show is funniest when you're made to work a bit yourself.
That said, they don't mind taking cheap shots – such as the occasional humorous costume, and contemporary dance is an easy target in itself – and the show definitely benefits from it. One example is an IRA-themed routine, complete with balaclavas, that is performed to full throttle disco dancing. It's completely gratuitous and glories in its own lack of 'layers', and is no less funny for it.
Not everything hits home so there is a bit of sag. A dance and accompanying argument about each individual's physical 'signature' falls a bit flat, as does a melancholic ode to a teacher from a love-lorn schoolboy. Some of the between-routine chit-chat is competent but unmemorable, although there are some lovely touches to their faux middle-management introductions to each dance, punchlines brought to life by a flicker of a hand, or the faintest of squints.