_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _ISAAC MILNE.   
at _THE LOWRY.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _3rd NOV.

November 3, 2021
images © Nick Thornton Jones/Warren Du Preez 2021.

The written information given before Dickson Mbi’s one-man dance performance Enowate informs us that it is a show serving a strong focus on identity. The leaflet provided describes how the show is inspired by Mbi’s ‘life changing journey to his ancestral home in Cameroon’, and subsequent period of self-reflection, weighing up his dual identities of African heritage and his upbringing in London’s East End.

Going in with this knowledge, one would be forgiven for eagerly awaiting an expression of deep philosophical thinking and physical grandeur from the offset. It is, therefore, something of a surprise when Mbi casually wanders onto the stage in his t-shirt and joggers.

‘I love stage right,’ he begins, ‘I love stage left. But centre stage is where I feel most connected.’ It’s a simple, straight-forward opener, one that, whilst perhaps a little jarring, serves to tell us two things: that everything in this performance is intensely meaningful and personal to Mbi, and that he wants to break down the barrier that one might typically expect between an audience and a dance-based show; inviting us to become actively involved in it.

It is an at-times varying ability to effectively achieve these two things that determines the show’s success as a whole.

With the introduction over, the performance truly begins – a one hour journey that can be divided into three distinct sections or ‘scenes.’ These scenes go to represent the various facets of Mbi’s identity, and effectively create a journey that takes us from his upbringing, through his discovery of heritage, and then finally to a consideration of the two combined.

Instead of opting to show specific events, or create an explicit narrative, Mbi, along with Artistic Consultant and Producer Farooq Chaudhry instead take the approach to mould all the experiences and emotions that come with each section into a more representative, abstract expression that encompasses everything, and anthropomorphises each into single characters.

Although there are, at times, patches of incoherence throughout, the overall trajectory is clear, and it is overall an effective choice that creates a truly unique experience for the audience.

Dickson Mbi (pictured above) was an IT Technician before finding his passion for movement and expression, courtesy of a street dance group he discovered (and subsequently joined) in London, directly outside of a one-off class he attended at the City’s famous Pineapple Dance Studios.

The first segment explores Mbi’s life before his experiences in Cameroon, and it is here that the inclusion of the audience into the show works at its best. Mbi’s East-End youth and cheekiness are personified into a footballer, bouncing around the space with a playful lightness. Mbi plays with isolation and weight with ease, showing an acute physical control that is channelled through character. Using his hand as the ball, he kicks, heads and bounces it out into the audience, encouraging people to throw it back. It’s here where he achieves perhaps the show’s most immediate and successful connection, with his infectious sense of playfulness creating an interaction and reciprocated liveliness that is truly involving. Expressive and energetic, it communicates the foundation of Mbi’s personality, and identity in this stage of his life.

The next scene brings with it significant change, and one where this sense of connection falters. This middle portion is easily the most physically impressive of the whole piece, and the careful consideration of how each production element interacts pays extreme dividends. The intention in this stage, as described by Mbi himself in the short post-show chat that followed the performance, was to explore and inhabit a sense of animism, putting this into practice, and tying it into the prowess and power of nature that formed part of his experiences in Cameroon.

The character devised for this section is evidently non-human. Mbi stands, bent over, his head down, lit so that crevices between his neck and shoulders become pits of shadow resembling eyes, his neck appearing thinner, and the back of his head creating a nose or mouth to complete the illusion of a creature’s face. The design and execution is incredible, and to witness is a visual marvel; the ability to recognise Mbi’s human form melts away, replaced by the striking image of a living, breathing creature born from his contortions and physicality. It is immensely effective, and Mbi’s precise use and manipulation of his own body (particularly, as mentioned, the muscles of his shoulders and back) make for quite compelling viewing as this animistic rawness is so viscerally conveyed.

This central scene is the longest of the three, and whilst the impressiveness of Mbi’s physicality makes it compelling to begin with, this doesn’t endure for the entirety of the slightly overlong vignette. With each instance where the lights snap to black, and then return to the creature in a different position, the purpose and momentum of the scene slowly ebbs away, threatening to take the audience’s attention with it. The movements become repetitive, and once we have experienced Mbi’s initially breathtaking creation, and understood what its expression reveals about his identity, it becomes difficult to see why the scene continues for as long as it does.

Once Enowate moves on, however, it’s easy to quickly become fully engaged once more. The final section is abstract (spiritual perhaps, maybe even cosmic?) and it is here where the lighting and projection design are most effective in supporting Mbi’s physical work. Using a gauze curtain at the front of the stage, Mbi’s body is enhanced by lights and figures that fit with his physical shape, and then subsequently exist beyond it. They allow him to build the resonance and scale of his already commanding and powerful movement. The performance builds in momentum here and it is genuinely thrilling to watch, the sound pounding, and Mbi’s dual identities mixing, combining, growing and beginning to exist in a plane beyond his physical self. It’s a mesmerising and ultimately satisfying conclusion to the piece.

It completes the picture of Dickson Mbi, the final few seconds being him, once again in his plain, physical form, stood in front of the audience, reminding us of the person whose identity and truth (the title translating literally to ‘truth stands’) that we have spent the last hour exploring.

Mbi has successfully achieved his intention of creating a piece that expresses his consideration of identity, and it’s clear throughout that the production is deeply personal to him, both emotionally affecting and passionately driven. Whether the same can be said for the audience is another question. Enowate is undoubtedly fascinating, compelling in places, and performed with a powerful degree of skill and physical control. But when considering if the audience are connected to it in quite the same way – the second of Mbi’s proclaimed intentions at the outset – the verdict is less definitive.

Mbi ends his introduction to Enowate with the invitation to ‘introduce you into my world,’ at which points the lights go out, and a gauze curtain for projections is pulled across the stage. And whilst this curtain isn’t physically present for the entire show, it seems that some barrier still remains. Whilst the audience can certainly enjoy witnessing such a powerful and personal expression of truth and identity, and early moments of interaction draw us in, Enowate ultimately keeps up at arms length – presenting us with a masterfully executed display of physical artistry that we never quite feel part of.

A masterclass of physical transformation empowered by precise technical design, Mbi creates a performance an audience can frequently marvel at and fascinate over, if not entirely immerse themselves in.


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