As the audience moves into the makeshift theatre setup in Partisan’s red lit concrete basement, they are met with four men sitting on the floor, clad in Adidas tracksuits and trainers, shaved heads buried into their knees. Minutes inch by to the sound of a menacing electronic drone, before one of the four men from ACAB — All Choreographers Are Bastards — begins shuddering and flinching until his whole body collapses on to its side.
What follows is an hour of kinetically charged and savagely beautiful dance theatre, exploring male bodies and their internal and external torture. The work’s title typifies in a gruesome metaphor the idea of blood, sweat and industrialised violence, of men being herded through a system that has little credence for their individuality.
As the group’s name implies, traditional methods of engineering dance sequences aren’t their favoured practice, which they expertly display by tracing a fine line between slick, gestural details and rough and haphazard movements. The result is dance that is thoroughly concerned with authentic expression; you can physically feel the hours of workshopping, discussion and experimentation that fuelled the final result. Perhaps their street attire encourages this, but it’s hard to tell if these men are trained dancers or just guys who have been picked off the street to unleash an energy from the darkest parts of their soul. There is a moment where all four men are lined up and move across the stage while shouting their internal worries or pent up frustrations. One man shrieks — eyes wide, fists clenched — “I really fucking love her!”, barely audible above the ascending music. It’s a simple detail, the combination of repeated words and movement, but over time it resonates a power. Much of the work seems to be about men having to stifle their emotions to the point where aggression seems the only feasible outlet.
Throughout the piece each man has a chance to perform solo, which despite the togetherness of their group appearance, is a welcome opportunity to understand their unique outlook through a personalised sequence of movements. It is through this that we see the accomplishment of each man within their craft, each so highly focused as they grunt and sweat their way through a pulsing display of self loathing, fear and oppression. It’s a hard thing, to use the body so delicately and ferociously at the same time, but here they pull it off. As each member assumes the space, the rest watch from the side, eyes transfixed on the unfolding tragedy.
But it’s when the group combine their bodies, that the ideas within Abattoir have maximum impact. At one point two of the men are locked in an embrace, gripping onto one another. The symbol of love and care soon turns violent as they smother each others’ faces with their hands then swirl around the space, negotiating an unsettling head lock as the pair battle for power. There is a moment when one man lies on the floor as two other members try to shift him, frantically pushing and pressing their bodies in an attempt to get him up and running again. He remains like a tomb stone stuck to the ground. This action is repeated as each of the men become the corpse-like figure whom the others use all their strength to try and revive. The combination of dance and physical theatre within this piece uniquely hammers home the struggles men have in communicating and supporting one another, desperately trying to alleviate each others’ pain, but consistently finding themselves crushed against impenetrable emotional barriers.
Real credit goes towards a work that manages to exude so many valuable ideas and themes in one hour without feeling like it has done so. Although Abattoir is unapologetically brash and in-your-face, the subtleties of the work stay with you – from the small aesthetic details that throw up British iconography of soldiers, old school ravers and skin heads into the air, to the dark undertones of suicide and the way the men fight to maintain a macho demeanour whilst flicking and jolting in pain.
It’s vital to see men baring all to explore the struggles of masculinity, still so often unaddressed in mainstream culture. As the lights came up in the vast basement and we saw faces gleaming with sweat, there was a lasting impression of togetherness. You had been made to feel like you knew these men, and knew more about yourself. What Abattoir achieves is an exhilarating spectacle that doesn’t vilify men as beasts but provides a platform for them to be vulnerable creatures, twisting and contorting against the overbearing weight of the world.
Partisan is a space for independent, community led, DIY and cultural based projects in Manchester. Find out more about their upcoming events here.