Among the standard features in every reality-TV competition are the dustups that arise between contestants as tensions mount and stakes climb ever higher. "I didn't come here to make friends," a player will inevitably state, unflinchingly, into the camera. "I came to win."
That kind of combative grit is not something one often hears at live theatre shows – theatres generally being social, easygoing and unaggressive venues in which to spend an evening. When the multidisciplinary performance company Bluemouth Inc. set about creating an ambitious new show in 2008, called Dance Marathon, Bluemouth member Stephen O'Connell certainly didn't expect scrappy ambition to become as integral to the theatre stage as it is to the small screen.
"Competition, shyness and intimacy were all themes that we were exploring, but we didn't really notice the competitive part of it until the full audience saw the show that first time," O'Connell says, remembering Dance Marathon's premiere at Harbourfront Centre's World Stage in Toronto in 2009, where it is being remounted this weekend. "And it wasn't just surprising to us. People are surprised how it affects them personally, how competitive they become where they would have thought ahead of time, 'I can't be manipulated into having that part of my nature come forward.' "
O'Connell and co-creators Sabrina Reeves, Lucy Simic and Richard Windeyer are known for their "duration-style" performances, including Bluemouth's five-hour-long, cross-town, multivenue production, Something About a River, in 2003. With their current show, they wanted to hark back to the popular dance marathons of the 1930s – which could last up to 40 days, and which played on participants' need of both escapism and prize money – to draw parallels between the Great Depression and what was in 2008 a nascent economic downturn.
But early workshops in Montreal showed them that audiences didn't simply want to watch the performers dance around them for several hours – they wanted to participate. "The shift went from having the focus on the performers to the audience; that was a big epiphany for us," recalls O'Connell. Dance Marathon became a 3.5-hour competition among audience members – with a few embedded professionals also on the floor – battling against physical exhaustion and several elimination rounds to win prizes and a trophy. (Participants are also allowed to eliminate themselves after a three-minute "free dance" period that kicks off the show.)
A sense of competition did seem to emerge more or less naturally in a time of economic crisis: As people watched their real-life neighbours lose real-life economic security, they relished the opportunity to pursue a goal, defeat opponents, and come up winners. But as praise from critics, and emotions on the dance floor – ranging from triumph to anger to desperation – far exceeded expectations throughout the show's subsequent tours of North America, Europe and Australia (and made Dance Marathon a 2011 Edinburgh Fringe smash hit), it became increasingly clear that there was another force at work.
"We began to realize," says O'Connell, "that the contemporary equivalent of [the dance marathon]is without a doubt all these reality-TV shows, especially the competitive ones like So You Think You Can Dance, American Idol and Canadian Idol."
Indeed, although talent-based reality sagas were already TV gold when Bluemouth created Dance Marathon, over the years the appeal of small-screen reality contests has only grown bigger. And there are more incarnations now than ever before: The Voice and The X Factor have catapulted everyday nobodies to celebrity status (or, in the case of Dancing With the Stars, afforded D-list celebs another 15 minutes of fame). Such shows also mirror a broader "immersive theatre" trend: In New York's Sleep No More, for instance, audience members roam a hotel for hours, interacting directly with the show they've paid money to watch.
Meanwhile, as Dance Marathon mirrors the immense popularity of prime-time competitions, it has been incorporating aspects of reality TV into its structure. Among them: voting rounds, exit interviews, and a "second-chance dance," which gives eliminated contestants an additional opportunity to compete.
As they dance closer and closer to the finale, audience members can become celebrities, at least for the evening, if they give it their all. O'Connell remembers one woman in particular whom he was paired with during the show's inaugural run in Toronto. At first, she was unsure – and formally dressed. But by the time intermission came around, she was clearly fired up to fight, and transformed herself "from looking like a librarian into looking like a gladiator," he says. "Her glasses were off, her hair was down, she had changed into a T-shirt, and was like, 'I'm going win this thing!' "
The drive to win, it seems, crosses not only entertainment-media boundaries, but borders as well. "Audiences aren't that different from place to place," says O'Connell. "The sense of competition in Melbourne is kind of the same as it is in Toronto, or in Vancouver as it is in London. It's this innate part of human nature to compete – and to win."
Dance Marathon runs Saturday night at the Enwave Theatre in Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail