Don’ts for Dancers

Direction and Music by Nicole Canham

Direction and Choreography by Nerida Matthaei

The Courtyard Studio at the Canberra Theatre Centre. 14 Mar 2012

There is fascinating and complex etiquette attached to social dancing of European origin, all for the purpose of maintaining the social order and ensuring a pleasant and inoffensive night is had by all.

The history surrounding these intricate rules have the potential to provide endless material for a theatrical production, but sadly the creators of Don’ts for Dancers did not capitalise on this opportunity.

Loosely based on the 1925 book by Karsinova, Don’ts for Dancers, this dance production is an innovative but undercooked mish mash of dance, vignette and music – ranging from contemporary, interpretive, ballroom, jazz and tango – which explore and break the dance floor rules people have observed over the past 80-odd years.

Set in an ambient vintage dance club, dancer Leah Shelton starts off the night by pulling an unsuspecting gent from the audience to demonstrate the Don’ts for Dancers, and it was at this stage that I felt hopeful that the show would shed some light into this fascinating world of tradition.

However, it was not to be, and any narrative began feeling a little disjointed from that point on. The concept was stripped back to a more abstract take on the topic, with the dance numbers by Shelton, Nicole Canham, Nerida Matthaei and Alex Bryce, and the chemistry between them, ranging anywhere from breathtaking to lacklustre.

Taken on their own, each piece/vignette is entertaining enough, if a little bit contrived, but as a cohesive whole it strays a little too far from the central concept and fails to ask the question it sets out to tackle in any comprehensible way: is life better when we live within the rules? There is no persuasive argument to sway the audience either way; this production is simply an exploration and tacking together of ideas without committing to any one in particular.

This is not to say there weren’t interesting creative highlights – after the somewhat awkward interval involving audience participation on the dance floor, Canham treated us to a scooby doobilicious jazz number on the clarinet, followed by some creative fun-poking at dance hall faux pas and a campy solo finale by Bryce.

The performers also have impressive respective backgrounds, and it’s obvious there’s some immense talent that hasn’t been fully tapped which does make frequent enough appearances to keep you in the theatre for the full hour.

This show leaves a feeling of dissatisfaction at the conclusion, like reading a book with the last few pages missing and then wondering all the possibilities that could have been the ending. With some finer tuning, it would have hit the mark.

Deborah Hawke