Written by Bryony Lavery
Directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett
At some point in nearly every boxing movie an analogy is drawn between the powerful fighter's footwork and the far less conventionally masculine dancer's steps. The connection extenuates the tension between boxers' often brutish mentalities and very graceful movements, usually underlined again in obligatory footage of footsteps "dancing" around the ring. But rarely does any boxing narrative take the next logical step into total stylization. Frantic Assembly
and the National Theatre of Scotland
lunge fists-first into Beautiful Burnout
(through March 27), a hyper-dynamic dance-theater sports drama inspired partly by visits to nearby Gleason's Gym
during the company's previous production at St. Ann's Warehouse in 2008.
Co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett's exercise-video-on-steroids choreography and imaginative uses of lighting, video, chest-rattling techno (by Underworld
and sound designer Carolyn Downing) and Matrix
-like fight sequences pack some much-needed punch into Bryony Lavery's all-too-familiar tale of title match aspirations. St. Ann's has been transformed into an epic ring, with seating flanking the elevated square platform where all action occurs, and a mosaic backdrop of screens providing video punctuation throughout. The ensemble of seven performs with total abandon, their energy matching the force of the very high production values. (Between the bass and the strobes, it feels a little like having your lights punched out.)
But all that hard-hitting spectacle can only add so much force to worn-out boxing narrative tropes and vaguely sketched characters. Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart) is a cranky old boxing coach who's selected four young men and one young woman (Vicki Manderson) to train at his gym, with the hopes of eventually turning one or two of them pro. When the most promising, Ajay "The Cobra" Chopra (Taqi Nazeer), gets dismissed for his flashy ways only to become a champion under some other coach, Bobby selects newcomer Cameron (Ryan Fletcher) for a title challenge. Poverty is the frequently cited but rarely felt backdrop, social disempowerment the weakness being overcompensated for with taped fists. There are only a few very brief hints of deeper motivations for these characters—Bobby was at one point nearly engaged to Dina's (Manderson) mother, for instance, though we never learn much more. The characters are vague types rather than real people, which prevents this production from having the hook of a compelling narrative, and keeps the experience primarily aesthetic.
Graham and Hoggett are content to hit at the surface of their boxers' simmering frustrations (barely articulated in Scottish accents that render arguments virtually unintelligible, though without losing much meaning), relying on danced training marathons and spectacular fights that render the story even more abstract and less specific. Beautiful Burnout
has style to spare, but even that wears thin wielded by such featherweight characters.
(photo credit: Richard Termine)