In the week that saw the lifting of almost all pandemic restrictions in Wales, it’s a playfully bold proposition to stage a show about the emancipatory and healing possibilities of a plague. In Dance to the Bone by Eleanor Yates and Oliver Hoare, the plague is a dancing one. A mass hysteria that seemingly compelled hundreds of citizens of Strasbourg in 1518 to dance is suddenly resurgent in contemporary South Wales.
Joanna Bevan (Yasemin Özdemir) works at the Insurance4U call centre where she is failing to reach her customer conversion targets. She is grieving the recent death of her grandmother – still present on a voicemail greeting – which is causing further familial tensions. The offer of transfiguration and reconciliation comes in the form of the mephistophelian St Vitus (Hoare), the patron saint of dancers.
Co-directed by Joe Murphy and Matthew Holmquist, this is sleekly produced and staged gig theatre, performed by a small cast of onstage actor musicians. The ensemble work is lovely, and witnessing the dexterity of actors who can also play instruments (and sing and dance) is always a particular theatrical thrill. The songs possess an intoxicating and assured swagger, and the dancing choreographed by Krystal S Lowe possesses an undercurrent of horror despite expressive lyricism. On Simin Ma’s set, lit by Andy Pike, it feels like we’re in a sacred space: stained glass windows on one side, and God as a DJ on the other.
But the beats of the drama are not as spirited as the music, nor as invigorating as the dance. It aims for the transcendental, hinting at the fleshy hedonism of an illicit rave and of healing through transformation, but is slightly mired by a narrative that is more mundane and less persuasive. This isn’t helped by the fact that much of the dramatic tension pivots on the use of the hackneyed trope where the Welsh language is rendered exotic, meaningful only as an incantation of strange earthy mysticism rather than a language in which people live their lives.
But even if I was not quite swept off my feet, there is still much here to tempt the soul.