here are some things you can’t cover up with Old Spice and Brylcreem. Round a table in the corner of the Third Eye Centre cafe three regular guys are talking boys’ talk. James Bond, scrum
downs, gun fights, fascism, rock ‘n’ roll and, er, ballroom dancing.
I’ve arrived aptly prepared for my afternoon summit conference with Man Act. Round the corner at the RSAMD, the Theatrical Management Association’s four-day get-together has begun in earnest with one lone woman and seven identikit male speakers lined up across the stage wearing virtually the same grey blue suit. It’s a relief to escape to the casual dress of Simon Thorne and Philip Mackenzie, who are only too keen to delve into those murkily taboo waters of male sexuality, social conditioning and, well, ballroom dancing.
The two men have been collaborating as Man Act for over five years, clocking up the three theatrical instalments seen together in Glasgow last year, while involving themselves in various extra-curricular dance, music and performance art projects. But it‘s to Man Act they keep returning; their chosen area of male identity and expression proving so fertile that they regard The S weatlodge as merely the starting point for any amount of future work.
For this latest piece, Thorne and Mackenzie have brought together twenty local men, some with no performance experience, to investigate further some of the ideas brought to the surface back in 1985’s Man Act I. The show, a blend of dance, theatre and music, draws on the imagery of cult Stateside artist Robert Longo whose Men In The City series presented graphic, frozen-frame action shots of besuited men in states of physical exertion or punishing violence.
The world of The Sweatlodge — the name derives from the initiation rites of American Indians — is one of 605 spy movies, spaghetti westerns and Lower East Side thrillers. It’s the rawk in rock ‘n’ roll, the Whiffofsmoke from a warm gun, the pelvic strut ofthe ﬂamenco dancer. Wee boys grown big. Both Thorne and Mackenzie have worked on large scale productions in the past, but this is the first time they’ve been able to open up their previously intimate explorations of the male psyche to deal with the broader implications of the male pack, the macho squad and, of course, the ballroom dancing.
‘The nub of it is precisely in the ballroom dancing,’ says music graduate Simon Thorne, his face gaunt, his teeth naturally clenched. ‘That’s where choreographically we started off from. In ballroom dance one partner is a man and one partner is a woman, so with twenty men there are very subtle negotiations about who leads and who follows. It doesn’t demand that the one who’s playing the female is passive — it’s receptive on both sides. When we’ve worked with women, it’s not been a problem, but it’s very interesting and quite amusing watching men negotiating so that they can find the grace and give to each other in either role.’
The twenty performers, whose backgrounds vary from commercial illustration to welding, engineering and psychology, have been developing the piece for over six months through improvisation based on the suggestions ofThorne and Mackenzie. It’s been an undoubtedly challenging and radicalising experience for them, but Thorne and Mackenzie are at pains to point out that this is no right-on, wimped-out male
therapy group. ‘There’s not all that much talk about it,’ explains soft-spoken Australian
Mackenzie Who is nonetheless every bit as eloquent as his collaborator. ‘The task is to make a show. It would be very easy to sit down for six weeks and talk about it, so we‘ve gone for a very pragmatic, actor’s approach. I suppose in a way. it is therapy, but in a completely different way. It’s therapy through action.‘
‘The conversation tends to happen in the corridors,’ agrees Thorne. ‘And it‘s interesting to note how those conversations are beginning to shift gear. The material ofthe piece is shifting people’s consciousnesses. But the basis of the work is physical and the changes are most evident in the way the men are working together — how they’re prepared to trust each other physically. what kind of work they‘re prepared to do. You‘re training an ensemble in a technical sense and because it’s an ensemble of men. all the issues we’re talking about come into play in a very practical way.’
Man Act’s work in this field is an unashamed response to the criticisms levelled by both the feminist movement and gay men at the behaviour of straight men. But there is something faintly pathetic in the image ofthe New Man trying to bear the cross of female oppression because of political convictions that can never be backed up by direct experience. True enough, everyone falls victim to some degree ofsocial conditioning, but in ending up with the power, men do tend to get the better side of the deal. Mackenzie and Thorne are well aware of the contradictions.
‘The Sweatlodge does not paint the image of the New Man precisely for those reasons,‘ says Thorne. ‘A lot ofthis material is pretty uncomfortable and you realise how close to the surface it sits and that’s how we men define ourselves. It puts into question the New Man response to feminism which involves a political thought process and seems to me to operate on denial rather than celebration. That‘s not the answer. The Sweatlodge I don‘t think has the answer, but hopefully it will throw the arena open to allow more questions.
‘Clearly, there are aspects of myselfas a man I can enjoy,’ he continues. ‘and I suppose the only plea that you can make is that you enjoy them with some responsibility. Space for men to celebrate themselves as men is absolutely necessary. When you look at the ﬂamenco. it is very much a celebration of male sexuality - in the sense of machismo. it‘s very macho — but it‘s also very beautiful. So you sort of think. well. great. I’ll have that. but ifl behave like that out ofthe context ofthe dance. that‘s where the question of responsibility comes in. The political line is that I must acknowledge where the roots of my nature come from and ifl wish to celebrate that. I must treat the rest of the world with respect.‘
The concerns of The .S'weatlodge. then. do not extend beyond the celebration and critique of masculinity. Once they get that sorted out. say Man Act. then women can be introduced into the equation. ‘The women in the audience.‘ says Thorne as a consequence. ‘have a chance to find it very funny. because if you follow James Bond logically down the line. it‘s actually ridiculous. It‘s patently clear that there is a whole dimension of experience that men have negated. So for women in particular it could be extremely amusing.‘
The Sweatlodge is at Tramway. Glasgow, Wed I4—Sat l 7 Nov. 8pm.
The List 9 — 33 November 1900 11