A celebration of the power we have to make ourselves feel better. Clod Ensemble’s Placebo

A celebration of its mystery: Clod Ensemble’s Placebo

The Place, London
November 1, 2018

Alexandra Gray

Say what you like about the placebo effect, the startling thing is it works. Multi-disciplinary dance theatre company Clod Ensemble’s latest piece works too, offering a translation of the effect into dance theatre. Ultimately, it seems to celebrate the mystery surrounding this phenomenon, whereby patients experience real relief from symptoms after taking inactive treatments, from sugar pills to sham surgery.

Seven dancers stride onto the stage, smiling serenely. A clipped, computer voice tells us that we’re about to be part of a series of experiments.

Experiment One. A woman marches over to a man and violently hurls a bunch of flowers at him. He’s stunned. She exits and tries again. This time she gently offers them, but she’s uncomfortably close. Soon she’s forcing a kiss on him, pawing at his face. Third time lucky. Now she allows a space between them, into which she tenderly extends the bouquet. He accepts it. Studies show that patients given pills by a warm, empathetic doctor report improvements, even if the pills actually contain nothing but sugar. It’s not just the action, but how it’s done that matters.

Clod Ensemble's PlaceboPhoto Camilla Greenwell
Clod Ensemble’s Placebo
Photo Camilla Greenwell

Experiment Two. The OK-Computer voice asks: Can we tell the difference between real and fake? Taking centre-stage, the luminous Valerie Ebuwa pops her hips and shoulders, undulating earthily to a bass-heavy beat. Pleasure seems spread across her skin as she ripples her spine and limbs, smiling warmly. The other dancers watch from the sides, bopping along, but their movements seem oddly mechanical and souless, which creates a weird air of sanitised utopia. All the dancers have terrific range, showcasing faultless technique from hip-hop to classical ballet. One swoops her arms so quickly that they blur like the wings of a hummingbird. The computer asks, does knowing the dancer is feeling real pain affect the way you see the movement?

There’s humour too. A brief quartet phrase is repeated four times, each repetition to a different piece of music, which prompts laughter as simple walks and glances are coloured by soundtracks which in turn seem to conjure epic horror, the wild west, and a louche jazz club. Paul Clark’s score is sublime, layering multi-instrumental textures, beats, and tightly synchronised samples of the voices of doctors and patients who’ve experienced the placebo effect.

The treatment may be fake, but the suffering is real. A dancer’s limbs crease and she folds in on herself, jerking in jagged, agonised increments. Behind her a black-clad body inches worm-like across the floor, spineless, limbless, destroyed by pain. Belief, says a voiceover, is the active ingredient. The septet weave across the stage, creating intricate floor patterns. In their sparkly green and blue costumes, they look like chemicals mixing.

What if you don’t believe? One performer shouts at the others to stop. “This is all fake. I still feel pain,” she says. Intelligent enough not to offer any simple answers, Placebo transposes the medical phenomena into a performer’s dilemma: am I being real, or fake? With dance this idea is at its most intangible, and as the piece builds to a finale, earlier material is re-incorporated in unexpected ways, forcing you to re-evaluate what you’ve seen. Bodies switch in the blink of an eye from fluid ripples to impish jumps, making you question any notion of underlying logic.

To pounding beats the company push on together, building to an exuberant climax. At last untethered from any judgements, labels, or frameworks, the movement becomes their medicine.

Filing out, audience members were handed a small cardboard box: a pill packet labelled ‘Placebo’. It worked for me.