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Clod Ensemble Clod Ensemble The Lowry, Salford 11 October 2018 to 13 October 2018

Placebo by Clod Ensemble
Placebo by Clod Ensemble. All pics: Camilla Greenwell

Dance as a way of exploring complex topics is not an obvious use for it, but Clod Ensemble have a track record of interaction with other disciplines, and in this one-hour, interval-less piece they show us aspects of the art of persuasion.

It’s presented as an experiment in which we the audience ‘observe’ – mainly observing our own reactions. There are examples of movement giving rise to different interpretations of the same event (girl giving bunch of flowers to a man); of movement meaning different things according to what we know about the person doing it (are they enjoying it or is it hurting?); of the Pavlovian response of being a ‘performer’ when a spotlight is turned on; of ‘fake’ and ‘real’; of the power of suggestion – with a recurring streak of rebellion by the dancers against the instructions of the Big Brother who at first dominates the whole thing through a disembodied voice or against the facilitator from among their own number who seeks to engineer feelings of wellbeing. There’s even a vivid take-off of a 1950s-style advertisement for cigarettes.

It’s all fairly interesting stuff, some parts more imaginative than others and some of it based on actual medical histories. The variety of things that can make a sufferer ‘feel better’ is extraordinary, and theatre people, of all people, should know about the power of illusion.

Yet ‘placebo’ is a bigger concept than suggestion or faith healing: as Radio 4’s Insight mentioned this week, the combination of consultation and prescription seems to be much more powerful than consultation alone, even with the ‘no active ingredient’ type of placebo, and even when the patient knows they’re being given something that is, or could be, totally ineffective. Placebos also have their share of negative side-effects, so they’re not just about wanting to be better – and they work with animals, so they don’t always depend on any kind of understanding at all.

The movement was not entirely original or grounded in the subject – it could hardly be either of those – but eventually they gave up the didacticism and danced a vigorous, lively and colourful ensemble finale, which certainly made me feel better. And I think it would have whether or not it said that on the tin. 


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