Manchester-based Company Chameleon was set up by Kevin Turner and Anthony Missen in 2007, and has built a reputation for strong, dramatic dance works that often draw on personal experience. Its current double bill begins with Words Unspoken, originally commissioned by Spanish company La Mov. Characteristically, Turner and Missen drew upon the personal stories of the dancers – in this case, on events and memories that were secret or unspoken. The result is deeply felt, articulately danced and, perhaps inevitably, elusive: its secrets remain secrets.
Each scene is built around a different motif, presumably derived from a personal story. The opening sees the five dancers in a line, from which one man breaks out into a berserker solo of multidirectional jitters, pounces and rolls. Elsewhere, two couples are contrasted, one a “conversational” interaction of gestural proposals and co-operative exchanges, the other a dysfunctional duet of blocked energies and aborted manoeuvres.
Other vivid images pass by: a foursome of faintly sinister eroticism; a man jumping obsessively on the spot while a woman splays and topples around him; a floor strewn with supine bodies, all quivering. Each engenders its own snagging intrigue, but taken together they amount to no more than the sum of their parts. Words Unspoken feels like rich material not yet shaped into a coherent whole.
Turner draws on his own experience of bipolar disorder, casting himself in the central role with a eye that is both sympathetic and unflinching
The main piece of the evening, Turner’s Witness, is powerful, thought through and brave. In it, Turner draws on his own experience of bipolar disorder, casting himself in the central role with an eye that is both sympathetic and unflinching. But is he himself? The question is put on stage right from the beginning, as Turner appears doubled by a dark figure behind him (Oliver Sale), who manipulates his arms, compresses his chest and yanks him into an increasingly combative duet.
Turner, left finally alone, is haunted by voices that urge him towards suicide. He tries to get away, but without that shadowy puppet-master controlling his actions he can no longer support himself: he keeps on falling, failing. As if to emphasise his isolation, two women (Helen Andrew and Maddie Shimwell) enter for a duet of close embraces and harmonised moves, while Turner is stuck facing into an upstage corner, like a classroom dunce.
Sale now returns with a manic Taylor Benjamin, and together they put Turner through a wringing trio of twists, spins and jolts. Sale and Benjamin represent the voices that we hear on the soundtrack – opposites in some ways (one says Turner is worthless, the other that he’s the greatest), but equally domineering. Eventually Benjamin takes over altogether for a revved-up solo that shuffles superhero posing, kung fu kicks and unstoppable rough-andtumble energy. Turner lies motionless behind him, as if the whole outburst were a hallucinatory, out-of-body experience.
To Turner’s considerable credit, he now pulls focus away from his inner demons to give space to the people around him: family, friends, doctors. When his mother takes him to a doctor, it’s not his sense of betrayal that we feel most keenly, but hers – cut with kindness, guilt, hope and desperation. Seeing Turner alternately clinging to and rebutting his companions, we sense his torment but, significantly, theirs too – in their hesitations, their tentative reaches and startled flinches, tiptoes and about-turns. A woman ties her limbs into knots of anxiety; a man circles at a distance, giving Turner a wide berth. There’s no blame here, just observation.
Only one scene strikes the wrong note: a strip-lit mental institution featuring two inmates, one clutching a baby doll, the other picking at a toilet roll, and both observed by impassive, white-coated clinicians. It’s a nightmarish but one-dimensional vision: unlike in the rest of the piece, we don’t see the humanity in either inmates or staff.
Still, the ending – low-key but filled with hope and tenderness – is both heartwarming and hard-won. It tells us that a little nudge on the elbow can be balm for a deep wound, and that people survive their troubles not as individuals but as part of a group. Very few of us have been untouched by mental illness, whether in ourselves or in people close to us, and Company Chameleon’s Witness dramatises this often submerged subject in a way that is illuminating, harrowing – and ultimately uniting.