fever: organized delirium

meg walker

Nigel Charnok, Fever

Nigel Charnok, Fever

Nigel Charnok, Fever

If fever can bring on delirium, it can also loosen a person from the usual constraints of decorum and let unspoken truths tumble out. UK dancer/performer Nigel Charnock creates an atmosphere of excited passion from start to finish in Fever by interspersing mad, large-scale movements with pseudo gentle moments. He’ll rush about with sweeping arm movements and scissor-leg high-kicks, sprint up and down the theatre stairs, throw himself on the musicians’ speakers – and then sit in an empty audience seat to join us listening to “the beautiful music; isn’t it like Schubert?” Charnock speaks physical gesture so fluidly that he can improvise hilariously cutting monologues about fundamental human obssessions without dropping his focus on movement.

Fever is a structured improvisation for Charnock and for the musicians, the two-cello, two-violin Virus String Quartet led by Michael Riessler on bass and tenor saxophones and clarinet. Originally inspired by Shakespeare’s love sonnets which Charnock speaks in part or whole but, as the program points out, every night is a new possibility. “Nigel Charnock will present a personal selection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, possibly: No. 18, 34, 16….” The musicians, for their part, satirize minimalist music, quote Purcell, send Charnock “shut it!” messages by increasing the volume when he teases by dancing erotically close to one cellist.

Nothing is safe from Charnock’s rant. This realization keeps the audience happily on edge, grinning in anticipation. It also creates a performance-long link of trust – we like this guy – so we’re willing to consider at least temporarily a comparison between a Catholic’s fear of passion (familiar satirical territory) and a burqua-clad woman’s view of the world “through a letterbox” (uncomfortable satirical territory). Charnock mocks everything, including his dance training and his (eventually) bare legs, so when he does get serious, we believe him. He ends the show with an orgasmic “death,” clenching the microphone stand in response to Riessler’s agitated clarinet solo played over his writhing body. The Vancouver crowd, for once, let silence sit for several seconds before applauding.

It’s remarkable that Charnock and Riessler have been performing Fever for a decade. The show stays fresh because the structure includes space for commentary on current events (the night I saw it, Charnock referenced current events like Canada’s presence in Afghanistan; another night he mourned Lady Di) and because Charnock and the musicians perform the piece wholeheartedly. The performers use their intimate knowledge of the material to bend phrases and treat everything with irreverent playfulness, knowing they will all meet up again at particular points and on cue. Charnock has a long, accomplished career behind him; successes include a commission to make Stupid Men for the Venice Biennale in 2007. Looking across from Fever to his later works, it’s clear that this rambunctious performer obssesses about death, religion and sex. But then, don’t we all, and he does it with irresistible hilarity and polish.

27 January 2008