From its first moments, Christian Rizzo’s Le Syndrome Ian is an evocation of the sexy, urbane space of the contemporary night club. The effect is almost painterly: the company of dancers blurs into a mass, and is arranged into various tableaux of limbs in angular motion, constantly silhouetted in dim half-light and smoke.
Feet slide in time, shoulders pop, an arm stretches out as if to grab the music by the collar. A group of dancers in smart white shirts and blue slacks sidle up to one another in intimate pairs, break apart, form a group, but someone is always left wandering at the fringes, looking to cradle or be cradled. Meanwhile, the relentless minimalism of deep house percusses against the stage, intensified by the barest flash of white light from three radial light fixtures. The stage is glazed over by an eternal wall of club haze.
This is the latest in Rizzo’s trilogy of “found” dance forms, recuperating folk and community dances for the contemporary dance stage. From the outset, Syndrome stages the improvisatory, repetitive, jerky movements of the dance-floor, and with it the high-octane ecstasy and sexual intensity of the club. Partnered dancing is a recurring motif, two bodies clasped together in intimacy or spinning around, holding hands. Group dances feature prominently too, with clubbers grooving in a circle, or breaking out into a line to execute the classic foot sliding and shuffling of House music. These informal movements have shades of folksy dance, and for most of the urbane audience in the house, the show is a reminder that the club is probably one of the most universally shared experiences of community dance today.
All this, meanwhile, is realised with stunning, precise stage-painting that, like the progressive minimalism of House music, achieves potent shifts in energy and emotion with the barest movement of set pieces and light states. The stage is every temple to nightlife in the world condensed into a sparse algorithm of sexy people, cool lights, and incredible music.
The company of dancers, stripped of identity, becomes a mass of human stage paint, set against massive mobile lamps that stare out and sometimes strobe hypnotically into the audience with white bars of light from the black upstage. Almost miraculously, these same light fixtures are also smoke machines, and in one particularly memorable moment, the beat drops, the light dissolves into haze, and a single ball of smoke hovers, cloud-like, over the dancers, a postmodern rendering of a massive renaissance tableaux. Grinding house music that alternates between ecstatic, fruity tech and dark satanic groaning, keeps the viewing and listening experience immersive and more than a little envious.
All this would probably have gone nowhere past the 20-minute mark, but thankfully Le Syndrome Ian is far more complex than a painterly evocation of the magic of nightlife. There is an elusive mystery at the heart of the show. From the show’s opening moments, a tall, monstrous figure, clad in dark green leaves and brambles (Swamp Thing), stands constantly at the fringes of the circle of revelry, staring at the proceedings with an ineffable silence and stillness. The other dancers never meet its gaze. This kickstarts an abstract dramatic arc that slowly unfolds over the show’s gripping hour: what is that thing, why is it here, why won’t it go away and let us watch these sexy dancers in their sharp white dance-togs groove? It’s a deliciously discordant note whose presence challenges an easy understanding of the show, and makes it that much more rich with meaning.
In the show’s first scenes, of couples constantly swapping partners in a modern-day courtly dance, the Swamp Thing stares morosely, a figure of exile. Set against this interchangeability of bodies and the prowling, hunter-like angling of people looking for a lay, the dark monster is like a musical drone sounding out the despairing loneliness at the heart of so much nightlife.
But the figure disappears and reappears with such percussive regularity that soon it becomes clear that it isn’t standing apart at all, but is really something that the dancers, in all their ecstasy and will-to-pleasure, seem to be keeping at bay for the few short hours they have in the dark.
The Swamp Thing motif throws into relief a whole host of binaristic tensions. The drama of the club is its ephemerality: its ebbs and flows, its crests and desperate thumping, rail against the day. Daytime represents its own darkness. Likewise, while the music is a vehicle for free-wheeling, improvisatory dancing, it can only achieve this through a driving, repetitive ostinato, and the body and its movements are relentlessly disciplined by the beat. In the same way, the percussive appearance of the mysterious Swamp Thing is a stubborn memento mori amidst all the revelry, a reminder of the darkness at the heart of ecstatic release.
In this manner, Le Syndrome Ian seems to point at a deep, radical politics between discipline and freedom, gently but powerfully exposing the fragility and futility of utopian energies. After all, the club is a utopian space. It is a retreat where the troubled, conscious self is dissolved into a phantasmagoric trance. Historically, and in the show, the club is a space that gathers transgressive, radical energies: a will-to-freedom, alterity, and resistance. It exists in liminal spaces: communally, for a short while, a night-time paradise is carved out in a grotty building in the boondocks of a city riddled with poverty, violence, and oppression.
At one point, this politics explodes across the stage. The dancing, jerky and angular, evolves into movements that seem combative: street scuffles, protests, the raised fists of anti-fascist movements are evoked. The Swamp Thing watches on, unmoving, and undeterred.
Soon enough, a scrim rises to suggest daybreak in a sudden wash of warm light. The party fights on, but eventually even the music fades into a deafening silence, and all you hear is the feeble shuffling of feet on brushed concrete. The dancers retreat, and the stage is suddenly swarmed with Swamp Things, slowly encroaching on a couple clasping on to the night.
In these moments, the show seems to ask: where can all that transgressive, counter-cultural energy go when the day comes, when we spill bleary-eyed out of the club, when the substances wear off, and the anxieties and horrors return in broad daylight?
It’s interesting that, for Rizzo, the seed of inspiration for Le Syndrome Ian is Manchester band Joy Division, whose dark music held sway over underground clubs in London in the 80s. But the haunting vocals of the band’s lead, Ian Curtis, only emerge in the show’s closing moments.
The Swamp Things have taken over the stage. They are curling into foetal positions or moping, defeated and powerless, across the stage; an emblem, perhaps, of the latent dread of living in this decade. But one Swamp Thing takes off its costume to reveal a lithe woman in purple and orange tights, the first flash of pop colours on the stage. It’s an obvious 80s redux. She stares, a little horrified, at the scene. She doesn’t recognise it. Is this time travel? Two worlds seem, after all, to bleed into one. The present, a world of leaden Swamp Things, and the past, the strains of Joy Division bleeding onto the stage as the woman dances in a little capsule of joy. Did these Gen X-ers see this future coming? Was there a warning, embedded deep in the despair of gloomy 80s rock, that we didn’t heed? Where do we go from here?