Clod Ensemble are an interdisciplinary performance company whose recent work has been shaped by a particular interest in human biology and medicine. Their new production, Placebo, appears to follow this trend, both exploring the medical concept of the placebo effect and employing a structuring device that refers to the scientific method of experimentation. However, the show (which I saw recently at the Lowry, Salford) is also an excellent demonstration of how concepts transplanted from other disciplines can soak up new meanings and swell to new dimensions when introduced into a fluid performance environment. In the case of Placebo, the strange dialectic of realness and fakeness at the heart of the eponymous phenomenon threatens to undermine the whole edifice of ‘expressive’ performance.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around… Placebo injects dancing bodies into an ‘experimental design’ intended to demonstrate the placebo effect to the audience: the fact that certain ‘fake’ treatments can nevertheless produce ‘real’ health and wellbeing benefits. Crucially, these benefits rely on the patient believing in the efficacy of the treatment. An unseen voice, abetted by a ‘lead’ dancer onstage, announces a series of experiments involving the various dancers as ‘test subjects’, who are all ‘seeking treatment’ for different ailments. But the audience is also implicated as a subject in these ‘experiments’. Indeed, many of them are presented as ways to explore the effects of certain parameters—music, costume, but particularly contextual information—on the audience’s response to the dancing. One dancer, we’re told, is dancing in a way that brings her ‘real joy’; another is dancing in a way that causes her ‘real pain’. Rather than presenting these statements as facts though, the voice asks us to assess how such statements might affect our response to the resulting dances, if they were to be believed. This self-deconstructing frame ends up destabilising the efficacy of the placebo effect (or its aesthetic analogue) by demonstrating its contingency. Continue reading