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Flash Review 2, 5-14: Fancy a pint, mate?
'Publife' with Protein Dance

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask

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LONDON -- British pub culture is almost a thing of the past, certainly in London, where the old style 'cockney' pub, frequented by working class locals and associated with heavy drinking, quiz shows, football (or soccer) and shabby stained carpets are being supplanted by up-market 'gastro' pubs with their fine wines, pretentious food and clientele of professionals. Protein Dance's site-specific work "Publife," which opened Tuesday in a real authentic pub, O'Neill's, conjured up the best and the worst of the traditional London pub, including chaotic salsa lessons, darts, stripping, karaoke, trivia quizzes and, of course, televisions screening football and the famous British soap opera, "Eastenders." Choreographed and directed by Bettina Strickler and Luca Silvestrini, who jointly set up Protein Dance in 1997 and who have gained a reputation for really pushing the boundaries in dance with their blend of humor, idiosyncratic movement, text, music and imaginative site-specific work, "Publife" is brilliantly witty and hilariously accurate at conveying its subject matter.

The atmosphere when I walk into the pub is manic. The five performers, including Silvestrini himself, are rushing around and it's not easy to separate them from the ordinary people in the pub or the audience for that matter. Silvestrini is the bar manager, pouring drinks and asking everyone to sit down at tables and answer the written quizzes. For the performance, the pub has been decorated with British nationalistic memorabilia, such as a portrait of the Queen, English flags, and red, white and blue streamers. It could be the Queen's Silver Jubilee all over again. TV monitors blare out heightened dramatic moments of "Eastenders" and football games and a DJ plays a raucous anthem of commercial sing-along pop music. Suddenly several things happen at the same time to herald the beginning of the performance. One of the performers, a rowdy cockney lass, arrives clutching handfuls of shopping bags and singing football songs. A man and woman play a game of darts, with the woman holding the dart board in a variety of erotic positions over her body; Silvestrini, as the camp Italian manager chats up another guy; the fifth dancer flirts with the cockney lass, lewdly slapping her bottom and creating shrill shrieks of excitement. The five dancers are life-like characters and represent the colorful stereotypes of people you might expect to find in a London pub.

The evening carries on in this riotous mode, which increases as feelings become supposedly more uninhibited through drink. The five characters start a salsa class which spins way out of control until they are flinging each other 'round the room in risky, tightly choreographed lifts while a strip-tease for the two men ends abruptly with one of them running away. Then there is the 'stiff' karaoke singer who is too wooden, needs the other characters' input to make her more sexy and entertaining and is manipulated into a kicking, grimacing robot; unable to stand the humiliation, she flounces offstage. Everything is convincingly performed but there is always a surprise, the choreography taking us out of an everyday situation into a surreal one, such as the karaoke act or the salsa lesson. Strickler and Silvestrini are particularly good at taking a humdrum action or pedestrian movement and making it into a virtuosic and bizarre statement. Each little act is peppered with audience participation, as the patrons/spectators answer quiz questions or respond to chatty asides from the performers, making for intentional confusion over just who is a performer and who is in the audience.

It is a wonderful scene of chaos that is created, as the spectators look around, back and forth trying to take in the riveting information which is bouncing off all four pub walls. As with all site-specific work, Publife breaks the normal viewing conventions; there is no one dominant view in this work, although much of the action does take place around a mini-stage at the front of the room. It's challenging for the performers; some of their wildest movement sections take place in the narrow space between the tables, and as they perform in such a hyped, abandoned manner, a nasty accident seems imminent. But it doesn't happen as these performers are pros at dealing with this sort of high energy, interactive dance theater performed in restrictive places.

The final showdown comes when 'last orders' (or 'last call') is announced and the performers rush to the bar to load up with pints and pints of beer. An extraordinary dance takes place in which pint glasses are balanced precariously on body parts; the sequence spirals out of control, with drinks spilling everywhere and drunken brawls breaking out. Everyone's inebriated. The DJ blasts out some techno, and the macho lads take off their shirts in true British football hooligan style and pogo aggressively all over the room. Does this conjure up student parties and pub crawls?

The Italian-born Silvestrini and the Swiss-born Strickler use their canny 'outside' eyes to really catch the essence of British pub behavior, which is why this piece has been received so well in Europe and the US. Essentially, "Publife" is a work which sends up traditional Britishness without being too unkind in the process. The humor is fondly teasing rather than malicious, but it is very British. "Publife" continues through tomorrow night at O'Neill's, with performances beginning at 8 p.m.

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