"What's funny? Is STOMP funny?"
"It's just funny that you're going." More weakly suppressed giggles. "Why would you want to see STOMP?"
Apparently STOMP's breakthrough reputation doesn't hold as strong today as it did twenty years ago.
Co-creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas began experimenting in a collaboration between street bands and theatre groups in 1981. From then, they gained steam and popularity (poster child status from Heineken didn't hurt) until the formation of STOMP in 1991 for Edinburgh's fringe festival. Appearing to rave reviews and "Best of Fringe" laudations, it wasn't long before STOMP exploded. By 1994, the cast was already touring packed houses across the globe. That year, they won the Oliver for "Best Choreography in a West End Show" in London.
In such a way has the legacy of STOMP grown – breaking records, showing multiple touring companies to sell-out crowds, gaining commercial gigs by the likes of "Tank Girl" and Coca Cola, eliciting Academy Award nominations, HBO specials, an IMAX movie, Sesame Street cameos, and upwards and onwards.
But has STOMP lost steam? New street-inspired dance crews like The League of Extraordinary Dancers seem to have out-shown STOMP's stardom. They seem to have exhausted their cultural originality and earned an equal social respect to Riverdance. Are they all washed up?
After watching their performance on March 25, I can safely say that I understand the legacy of STOMP, and it's ongoing popularity.
The evening plays out with the timeless framework of vaudeville-esque sketches and comedy. There is no discernible story arc, but numbers are well framed with irreverent scenes, and there is enough subtle understory to keep the audience engaged and give everyone a break from what can easily become excessive banging. Definite characters emerge from the ensemble of dancers, and everyone gets a moment in the spotlight.
The ensemble for this show is impeccable. The program credits 11 dancer/percussionist/performers, but only eight perform at a time. If there was anything notating which actors appeared the evening I attended, I missed it, so I can't mention any single outstanding performers...nor would I even if I could. This is a true ensemble piece, without a single beat, shuffle, grunt, or click out of line. And with not only perfect rhythmic timing, but also depending on one another to fling paint cans and poles around the stage, these guys (and gals) need to be on. The dancers get to have a lot of fun with their show, from throwing themselves full-force into explosive urban jubilee, to reveling in the subtleties of silent film-like humor.
Creators Cresswell and McNicholas have kept their baby close, and are still credited as directors of the piece. The choreography has well earned is laud. The show has a true ability to take the completely mundane (brooms, boxes of matches, newspapers, and literally trash), and weaving intricate cacophonies. Dancers perform on themselves, each other, upside down, and hanging from the rafters. More than once, dancers let themselves get carried away with the raw energy of the music, and more than once, an instrument was literally pounded to pieces – without missing a beat, its replacement would fly on from the wings and on goes the show. And, each number seems to top the previous one in energy and ingenuity. Even though this is a piece dedicated to the creative sounds that are hidden all around us, the visual is not ignored. A highlight for me was a number performed in complete darkness, with zippo lighters as instrument and lighting effect.
At times though, I wonder if STOMP hasn't clung too hard to its origins. This is obviously a great piece (it's universal acclaim and popularity attest to that), but I can't help but think that the creators are holding back many ways they could grow. The new numbers (one involving giant rubber tubes, another with paint cans) are impressive, but no more than variations on what they are already doing. I appreciate the commitment to found objects and percussion music, but I'd like to see them vary beyond the "THUD THUD THWAK." Perhaps they could play even more with tonality in material objects, or percussion in traditionally melodic tools (like the human voice, for example). There are tiny glimpses of this potential in the show, but they are brushed over quickly in favor of more THUD THUD THWAKing.
As for the set, no surprises there; as can be expected, it is tiered structure of trash, tools, street signs, and generally anything that is to be banged upon in the successive two hours. With no set designer credited, it truly seems to be more a design of necessity than artisan. And every nook and cranny is tapped on at least once throughout the show. Lighting design deserves particular mention (credited to McNicholas and Neil Tiplady), as it at times plays a character itself. Sudden lighting changes, with the dancers struggling to keep up, seem to poke at the bizarro of what could (maybe should) be a street piece finding itself in a major performance hall. As an audience, we are soon aware of the out-of-place-ness that this production holds at a venue like the Fox. But, the performance itself looks back on this and makes light of it.
Part of the surrealism of the evening, for me, was witnessing such a raw, loud, raucous, at times slightly bawdy performance at a classic venue like The Fox. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but in my imagination, you still dress up for a show at the historic venue, and pay homage to the respectable art of theatre. Looking around me, the audience was no giveaway for the evening's atypical offering. They could just as easily have been there for a performance by The Three Tenors. But, STOMP seems to have carefully constructed itself for all audiences. Adults enjoy the intricacies of the choreography, and the kids get to delight in some poop humor. Everyone leaves happy. And, I saw more than one person tapping their fingers on a rail, or shuffling their feet in the sidewalk, attempting to conjure some of the vivacity from the show into the everyday objects on their own mundane journey home.
Maybe STOMP is commercialized. But, they do what they do well and have certainly acquired a team of impeccable talent, energy, and showmanship. Rather than being considered "sell-out" street performance, STOMP could be hailed as one of the most successful fringe projects in Western culture. As much as hip hop celebs famed and mainstreamed urban culture or pop-country stars have profited off their rural predecessors, STOMP has brought grassroots DIY theater dance and music to masses.