“Real men”—ordinary, non-professional guys—don’t dance? Not true and never has been, though shyness and uptightness definitely figure in today’s Western world. Gideon Obarzanek, director of the Australian company Chunky Move, interviewed various men about their dance adventures and built his astute, funny, and touching I Want to Dance Better at Parties around those stories.
At the outset, five interviewees show their stuff on five medium-sized screens (video by Michaela French), suspended in front of the Joyce’s brick rear wall like a row of windows. Below each screen, three male dancers and two females copy their moves. But Obarzanek’s structure is fluid. Although each of the dancers is linked to one of the men whose voices we hear, all of them (plus Delia Silvan) function as crowds at clubs, friends, a teacher, and even inanimate objects. No one is alone for long, which is sort of the reason the guys took up dancing.
There’s Phillip (Antony Hamilton), a widower with two young kids, whose remark gives the piece its title. Jack (the female Jo Lloyd), a telecommunications engineer, visited his wife’s Israeli folk-dance group, used his skills to invent a code for notating the steps, and filed the dances in an online database. Deon (Adam Wheeler), a 19-year-old, loves both clubbing and the traditional Greek dances he grew up with. Lindsay (Kristy Ayre) met his lover at a clogging group, and years later lost him to another man in the same group. Franc (Lee Serle) watches dancing at clubs but won’t participate; he has many excuses.
Obarzanek’s staging doesn’t mirror these stories literally but rebounds off them and digs more deeply into them. Phillip often hyperventilated after his wife’s death: Wheeler sticks his thumb into Hamilton’s mouth for two-man, inhale-exhale CPR; as one expands, the other deflates. Breath becomes a repeated shorthand for dancing, pulling the performers onto awkward tiptoe, creating more air and space in their torsos. Serle reveals Franc’s profound insecurity by grasping his crotch and making terrible, punitive faces as the others close in gaily around him. Lloyd seems to express Jack’s arranging and codifying when she pulls exhausted club denizens into positions and turns Hamilton into a series of objects (and maybe Jack’s wife), e.g., a computer (she types on his hands), a bed, and a TV set (Hamilton’s face responds to her channel-switching via remote).
The ongoing dance party is supported by Niklas Pajanti’s dramatic lighting and an almost anonymous buzz and hum of music by Jason Sweeney and Cailan Burns (Pretty Boy Crossover) that can explode when necessary. Clogging, Latin ballroom, folk dance, and club stuff become flexible and interpenetrating. When Wheeler, waving a handkerchief, starts hopping and stepping, the other two men join him in a Greek chain. Ayre acquires a backup group of barefoot cloggers and a temporary partner.
The wild rapture of the Saturday-night scene comes alive when all six wonderfully individual dancers hurtle around—hauling one another, busting free, and tumbling onto a single small mat that they move just in time to catch falling bodies. In an early terrific side-by-side duet for Lloyd and Ayre, the two women seem to be getting things out of their systems with strength and energetic precision. In the final ruckus, they get out of themselves and at the same time more deeply in. Wheeler, undulating slowly and extravagantly in front, looks like a snake shedding its skin.
I Want to Dance is very different from Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin’s Bessie-winning Tense Dave, in which a mystery becomes increasingly mysterious as a circular platform of pie-shaped rooms revolves. In this case, it’s the choreography that revolves, shooting characters into the foreground, but always pulling them back into the ongoing dance.