Live review: Placebo @ The Lowry

Clod Ensemble are an interdisciplinary performance company whose recent work has been shaped by a particular interest in human biology and medicine. Their new productionPlacebo, 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.

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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.

But this is just the first set of intriguing contradictions generated in trying to impose the placebo paradigm onto the piece and its ‘scientific’ framing. The question governing this framing cannot only be concerned with whether presenting a lie or falsity can nevertheless produce a real emotional effect in the audience, because this is the way (almost) all theatre works. Instead, the unseen voice specifically invokes a kind of positive surplus value—a feelgood factor—which we, as the audience, should be monitoring in our own bodies. This same positive surplus appears to be the objective of the ‘ailing’ dancer-subjects onstage; while some of the experiments involving the audience’s perception are ‘real’, many of them exist within a kind of diegesis in which the performers and audience together are seeking relief from pain, or some other criterion of wellbeing.

This opening up of a kind of ‘semi-fictional’ or metaphorical discourse allowed me to examine the proceedings through one of my favourite analytical lenses when watching dance. As both an expressive and participatory form, dance lingers in a twilight zone between fiction and (performed) reality: dancers always ‘play themselves’, yet they always play very specific versions of themselves. Music both exists and doesn’t exist within the dancer’s world: it is both the physical context in which their moving/to which their responding, and it is the effect of their movement. This aspect of dance is boldly thematised throughout Placebo. The dancers are not only playing themselves (as bodies) but they are playing themselves as dancers, being asked to dance. The question here is ‘what is “dancing” for these dancer-characters?’—what is the objective of dancing? is this objective immanent in the dance itself or is it a byproduct or surplus that dance produces/unlocks? how do the dancers evaluate the success or effectiveness of their actions? how does it relate to aesthetics? (i.e., does beauty correspond to efficacy?) do the audience and their reactions have any role in this?

These questions are nicely addressed in a later scene, in which the dancers take turns presenting two gestures to the audience; we’re told that one gesture is ‘real’, the other is ‘fake’. In most cases, both gestures look identical. Thus fakeness and realness—along with health and sickness, pain and wellness, aesthetic pleasure and lack thereof—are manifested in the dancers’ world (a fiction in which the audience are included) as an intangible ‘fact’ specific to each dancer.

At one point, the laboratory framework of the piece is interrupted—’This isn’t working’, one dancer grabs the onstage microphone, ‘turn off the music’. The dancers, we are told, aren’t feeling any better. They are still experiencing pain. On the one hand, this deconstructive moment — almost de rigeur in postmodern dance and experimental theatre of this type — is merely a skin-deep incision into the fictional apparatus of the performance. It rings false — a fake incursion of the real (i.e., the spontaneous moment of creation) — and yet it also follows a section whereby the experimental frame (already a self-deconstructive device) is itself shown to be a hoax.

For me, the result of all this layering of fake effects framed by fake explanations is a sense of disorientation that actually restores some of the preconditions required for the placebo effect. The metaphor shifts, so that it is the show itself that is ailing, and by extension, the practice of dance as an activity with power, meaning or force within the diegesis of the show. In their subsequent attempts to pursue a remedy, collectively and individually, the dancers fall into entropy and exhaustion. The stakes no longer concern the fictional pain of the dancer-characters or the perceptions of a suggestible audience, but the calibration of the dancers (their actions, their being and its meaning and weight) to their own ‘world’: the stage world proper to the medium of expressive dance. In other words, a crisis in the integrity of expressive dance as a medium is tantamount to a crisis in the very being of dancers within a dance piece.

Crucially, this shift transcends the irreconcilable division between the fictional ailments of the dancers onstage and the ‘real’ aesthetic responses of the audience to their performance. Both audience and dancers are implicated in an aesthetic project (fuelled by imagination and empathy) which exists between fakeness (fictional characters) and realness (the audience’s bodily response), concerning instead the collective investment of a material-cultural practice (expressive dance) with meaning/value. In a sense, we are encouraged to ‘forget’ our awareness of the fakeness of a placebo (and of the manipulativeness of theatrical devices like music and lighting) in order to rediscover a collective belief in the efficacy of dance, which becomes that very surplus that the dancers themselves are seeking.

After a series of choreographic riffs on the danger of supposed panaceas, which leave the dancers’ improvised prescriptions totally impotent, a resolution arrives through a recognition of uniqueness and individuality: every body and every physical constitution is different, responding to different stimuli in different ways. This is not a rejection of the placebo effect as false solution, but a sensitivity to the subjective nature of wellbeing. Placebo concludes with a joyful celebration of ‘doing what feels good’, with sequences and gestures from the preceding hour or so, extracted from their original ‘prescribed’ context and reinvested with voluntary spontaneity.

To me, this conclusion certainly felt like a rejection of the scientific (choreographic?) method as a source of dehumanisation — reducing a group of individuals to a set of equivalent bodies. Yet this familiar liberal-humanist message is offset in an interesting way by the fact that it is delivered through the re-mystification of the dance medium, encouraging the audience to forget the results of the initial experiments and sink back under the narcotic influence of the theatrical apparatus. Sometimes, it is only through sheer belief in the integrity and efficacy of an artificial system that such a system can elicit real results.

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