BWW Reviews: BELOW MY FEET a Theatrical 'Baby Photo'
Looking back at his early musical, SATURDAY NIGHT, Stephen Sondheim says, "It's not bad stuff for a 23-year-old." Ever self-critical, acutely aware now of what he perceives to be the flaws of the show, he continues: "It's my baby pictures. You don't touch up a baby picture - you're a baby!" BELOW MY FEET is an example of the kind of dance theatre that could be called a choreographer, dancer or producer's baby pictures. It is not without merit - and young producers like Ciara Baldwin and Luke Brown deserve commendation for getting this group of young people's work out there in the first place - but on the whole, BELOW MY FEET is wrapped up in its own naivety, lacking any strong directorial vision that might guide the production out of the pitfalls of self-indulgence.
BELOW MY FEET ostensibly deals with the question, "How much do you know about the person next to you?" The title is a reference to the song of the same title by British indie folk band Mumford & Sons, one of the songs featured in the show along with tracks like Baz Luhrman's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". The songs provide underscoring for a series of dance numbers, in modern jazz, contemporary, tap and hip-hop, as well as for several photo and film montages. Several film clips in which the dancers - including the show's two producers, along with Meagan Miller, Kayla Gatley-Dewing, Ami-Rose Barber and Amelia Baldwin - discuss problems they have encountered in their lives in general as well as more specifically during the creation of the show. With these issues serving the springboard for the show's content, the audience is left to grapple not with the idea of how we perceive the people around us, but with the problems of the middle-class teenage angst poured out on stage and meme-like clichés that somehow make all that angst bearable.
Choreographers Ciara Baldwin, Megan Black and Kerry Domoney manage to translate some of these ideas into genuinely engaging dance material. A whimsical tap number early on in the show brings to the show a few minutes of much-needed levity, while a duet performed to Adele's "Don't You Remember" offers honest emotional depth in both its staging and execution. A dance performed by two dancers seated on the floor, consisting entirely of stylised gestures and upper body movements, also impresses, as does the use of the coloured powder usually associated with the Hindu Holi festival in the closing sequence of the show. But there are other dances where the choreography dabbles with overly literal interpretations of the music (such as that conceived for "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)" or overly generic contemporary dance sequences.
A major problem with the show is its reliance on video footage. One of the joys of Live Theatre is the immediacy of the body in space and there are many times when the show slips into a passive mode due to the shift between live performance and recorded footage. This is trying enough when the video sets up or attempts to draw together themes in a manner that could be much more convincingly achieved in live performance, but it is devastating when the video completely supplants key moments that have the potential to transform BELOW MY FEET into a more compelling work.
Take, for instance, a video clip in which Barber has an epiphany about the way people perceive her. Following this, Barber arrives on stage with a platitude like "You are enough" written on her arm in big capital letters. She then moves to the side of the stage where, during the next dance, she scrubs those apparently definitive words off her arm. Probably the most interesting action of the entire show, this desperate destruction of an all too familiar truism is relegated to the sidelines, secondary to both the filmed material and a formulaic piece of dance that has nothing much to say, instead of being kind of the dramatic impulse from which the best dance theatre is conceived.
BELOW MY FEET probably works best as a piece for teenagers and recent high school graduates, who are experiencing the same issues as the young company who have conceived and who perform the show. Even granting that kind of niche-market concession to BELOW MY FEET, theatre should challenge that kind of self-absorption. That would not only allow young audiences the to see possibilities beyond their existential fight, but would also shape the material into the kind of expressive and eloquent theatrical experience it aims to be.