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Martin Creed’s Ballet (Work No 1020) Review

Nicole Dalamagas finds philosophical controversy in the strangest of places

Written by . Published on July 1st 2011.

Martin Creed’s Ballet (Work No 1020) Review

WHEN somebody tells you they have you a ticket for the ballet that evening, you may expect to see frilly tutus, pirouettes and bi-curious boys in tights. You probably wouldn’t expect to see a ten-minute film of a crouching girl taking a crap. And yet somehow, last Tuesday evening, jaw-dropped and eyes peeled, that was exactly what I found myself watching.

The work is genuinely offensive, from the slowed-down film of a penis as it rises to a full erection, to the shouty indie ballads of excessive profanity, yet it is quite refreshing to watch a man who appears so normalised to the aspects of life that we often regard as grotesque. 

Martin Creed’s ballet (Work No 1020) should really come with an advance warning. Maybe something like ‘shit happens’, or perhaps ‘ballet for copromaniacs’ would be fitting? My smug guest companion, who had not only seen the ‘ballet’ before, but whose cousin was actually the pianist, conveniently failed to mention that this may not be your average ballet. At least if I’d known it was the work of Creed, an artist famous for winning the Turner Prize in 2001 with The Lights Going On and Off (Work No. 227) and more recently Work No. 850, in which athletes ran at top speed through Tate Britain every 30 seconds, all day, every day for four months, I would have at least been aware that it probably wasn’t going to be Swan Lake.

Co-commissioned by Sadler's Wells and Frieze Music, Work No. 1020 began with an opening I have to say I quite liked; after some initial confusion over how to begin such a performance, Creed bellowed a song, which instructed the audience to ‘Fuck Off’. Unfortunately, many of the older generation of theatregoers and perhaps the more sensitive Sadler’s regulars actually did so, but in my mind this only enhanced the viewing appeal. As each panicked face rushed out of the theatre’s many orifices, they became at once a part of the performance; a testament to its underlying questions. Why are we so shocked by our own bodies? Why do our everyday functions repulse us so strongly? Have warped social rules prevented us from keeping in touch with our naturalistic roots?

Whilst it is evident that the performance is Creed’s first experiment with choreography, I feel that the man deserves credit where it’s due. Somehow, the psychotic, afro-haired Scot has managed to create a juxtaposition of comedy, film, song and dance, which is as entertaining as it is culturally significant. The work is genuinely offensive, from the slowed-down film of a penis as it rises to a full erection, to the shouty indie ballads of excessive profanity, yet it is quite refreshing to watch a man who appears so normalised to the aspects of life that we often regard as grotesque. Perhaps I’m being overly-analytical here, but the performance could even be considered as a modern impression of the French theatrical style of the 1940s, The Theatre of The Absurd. This sought to parallel existential philosophy, illustrating how in a world free from God and religion, man must find his place in the metaphysical world. Creed’s performance, much akin to the originals of this style, contained high levels of contrast and isolation – the beauty of dance and the joy of comedy performed aside apathetic lyrics such as ‘What's the point of it?’ and ‘Pass your bad feelings on’.

Likewise, the concept of the ballet itself was captivating, intelligent and original. Creed restricted the five, young dancers to the five positions that are the foundation of every ballet. These positions, which allow only for back and forth or side-to-side movements, were then assigned to a musical note, making rational sense of each step and stripping the ballet to its most basic form. Each short dance functioned as algebra, allowing a tight, controlled, mathematical framework, in which Creed could examine the effects of playing with time, speed and direction to make a consequential impact on the dance. The patterns were then completely in sync with the music; the dancers would make large leaps forwards and then sprint backwards in unison, like puppets commanded by each tickle of the piano keys.

This highly-organised, geometric choreography provided the performance with yet more contrasts when set aside the illogical and often abrupt guitar anthems which interrupted them. Yet oddly, the systematic approach to music and dance seemed to mirror the man himself. Throughout the performance, Creed’s heavily Scottish juts seem both brilliant and ridiculous; genial whilst coy. Even his repetitive mutterings and undecided ums and ahs seem to function as part of one, larger, coherent pattern, suggesting something profound about life; how every small, shuffling movement and individual action seem part of an overwhelming grand scheme of things. A footstep, two hands touching one another, a girl excreting on the floor; these tiny everyday actions make up the rudiments of human existence.

As I left the performance, in desperate need of a glass of wine and unsure as to whether I had just witnessed century-defining art or one man’s very public mental breakdown, I have to admit that from start to finish, the performance was truly unforgettable, and one which reassured me that with madness, most definitely comes brilliance.

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