Words by Pooja Sivaraman. Pooja is part of our Guest Writers development programme supported by Arts Council England.
TOM by BULLYACHE performed at The Yard is an exploding, colourful, synth-pop drizzled exploration of queerness and the taxing pursuit of its preservation. Time worked differently in this show. The dulcet tones of the live lyrics, the twitch of taut muscles, and the discomforting satisfaction between every unusual moment of tension and release all worked towards a queering of time—a destabilisation of its linearity and control over the human body. The dancers often ran in circles around one another quickly, manically, and with the precision of a steel compass. These rhythmic oscillations worked to recalibrate time. Time unraveled. Time became a constant, consuming, capitalist framework within which queer bodies fought to stay afloat.
The dancefloor belonged entirely to the five bodies that commanded it. Their movements were peppered with piercing glances at one another, reminding the audience of the very strange intimacy that comes with alienation. There was something immediately inviting as it was disarming in the aesthetics of the piece. The dancers were dressed in layers of conflicting fabrics: greyed lace, ill-fitting denim, skin-tight leather, and velour. Their bodies, however, moved against this constricting attire like butter on crusty bread—crumbs of intimacy punctuated the solitary landscape of a sweaty dancefloor.
“Even in its rage against suffocation, there was ecstasy…”
The choreography, which interlaced somatic snippets of whirling dervishes, kathak dancers, voguers, and gymnasts, was interrupted with jarring moments of physical provocation. Familiar movements became uneasy fragments. At moments, the sweet soundscape of emotional pop was stopped to sharp silence. Two dancers, positioned on their hands and knees, looked blankly into the audience while they snapped their necks back and forth. These provocations were ruptures in the contract between audience and performer, as we were suddenly yanked out of their imagined world and into the physical, theatrical space. The dancers’ audible breaths of struggle served as an acute reminder of the politics of performance—our position as voyeurs, and their bodies as collateral.
Time continued to disorganise through the discomforting oppositions of tension and release. A queen faints under the pressure of performing and is resurrected as the other dancers twerk upon her limp body. Another dancer raises their body unnaturally against gravity, then collapses—breathless.
The dancers line up facing the audience directly as they would in a club. At first we meet group of people moving rhythmically to a techno beat. Then, we learn, they cannot stop. They thump mechanically against the beat, embodying an almost murderous release. One dancer gets tired, stops, and soon goes back to it. Must keep dancing, must keep dancing, must keep dancing — is what rang from their sweaty, wrung bodies by the end of the night.
The show could not escape it’s own message, and the day I sat in the audience, one of the dancers could not perform due to an injury. The stage manager announced that the company had been working “around the clock” to give us a “full show”. The injured dancer’s body was replaced with their empty costume draped upon a steel metal chair with a missing seat, establishing a constant reminder throughout the show in what we were denied in seeing. This restless chair was a token of a body that worked itself until it broke, for the sake of our entertainment—for the sake of art. The show could not immerse us entirely, because we were reminded of a past, a present, and a future where dance leads to destruction.
Even so, I must emphasise that this show, ultimately, was about joy. Even in its rage against suffocation, there was ecstasy. The five dancers turned their floor into a space of transformation. A space with the promise to move and to move through. The show pulsated with the electrifying promises of a club basement, a pregnant look across a dance floor, the possibilities of the night. In the dancers’ tender moments, I was reminded by the feeling of being held in a sweaty crowd, riding along the wave of a synthetic feeling, moving through the grief of the day, fighting against its inevitable descent at sunrise. I felt layers of discomfort, grief, amusement, and mesmerisation throughout TOM; but I left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the dance floor and its potential to hold us all: in movement of the body and stillness of the mind, against the rush of time telling us otherwise.
BULLYACHE with Belén Laroux, Ed Mitchell, James Olivo, Lewis Walker & Yen Ching-Lin
Jacob Samuel & Courtney Tylor Deyn | Co-directors
Scilla Rajalin | Rehearsal Direction & Assistant Choreographer
Laurie Loads | Lighting Design
Alan Scott | Set Design
Fraser Buchanan | Producer