“Monocle” by Mathieu Geffré

A Dance Gem in Northumberland

A blog about a week full of dance in Northern England

Mathieu Geffré’s beautiful deep dive into the untold story of the lesbian cabaret “Le Monocle” is the emotional highlight of our correspondent’s week in and around Newcastle.

Newcastle / Hexham, 16/06/2024

In southern Northumberland, a 40-minute train journey away from Newcastle, there is a little picturesque town called Hexham. A massive medieval church, Hexham Abbey, dominates the view once I’ve climbed the steep street up to the town’s centre. Only a stone’s throw away I enter Queen’s Hall, an arts centre but much more a community building and from what I am feeling the heart of Hexham. As I enter, I am welcomed by a cheerful flashmob performed by a group of local non-professional dancers that participate in the dance classes that were established at Queen’s Hall last year. A warm feeling of community comes over me.  

It is my fourth day of a staff exchange facilitated by the European Dance Development Network that I am taking part in. For the past few days, I have been a visitor at Dance City, a dance house in Newcastle and probably the most important dance institution in Northern England. The wide variety and scope of its programme that I learn about talking to Dance City’s lovely staff is absolutely impressive. For example, they offer dance performances, a Bachelor’s and an advanced training programme for young people, 60 public dance classes a week and summer residencies for artists. Through many valuable conversations with the engagement team, I am told that they don’t only co-operate closely with a lot of local schools but that they have also established what they call a hub in the town of Hexham where they offer dance classes for people over the age of 55. 

When I enter Queen’s Hall that Thursday evening it is already my second time being here. On Tuesday I already participated in one of the contemporary dance classes taught by lovely dance artist Beth Veitch. After experiencing the extremely kind and welcoming group of participants and later having a delicious lunch of leek and potato soup and a cheese scone at Queen’s Hall Café, I am happy to return and round up the week by watching a performance. Little do I know that I am about to have one of the most special theatre experiences of my life. 

Hexham Abbey

The performance that I am watching is a dance piece commissioned by Dance City, namely Mathieu Geffré’s “Monocle” which takes us back to 1930s Paris and to the historic venue “Le Monocle”, a lesbian cabaret opened by Lulu de Montparnasse. A bar counter on the right-hand side, a glass entrance door in the middle and a circular stage area with a red curtain on the left-hand side all help to create the familiar cabaret aesthetics that in this case is given a twist. Exclusively female read dancers maneuver their way across the stage, accompanied by the fantastic vocal interpretations of singer Imogen Banks. The choreography shifts effortlessly between smaller and intimate moments between the dancers and more energetic, virtuosic and passionate group dances with their poignant gestures and high kicks. We follow the group as they interpret the supposed atmosphere of “Le Monocle”, there are moments of welcoming a newcomer to the cabaret, of performing little shows for the other “guests” and, above all, beautiful moments of (sexual) desire. At one point there is even an incredibly funny parody of what is not there now: men who get into a physical fight thinking that it might impress women. 

As empowering as this executed idea of a safe space is as shattering is the ending. Over the course of the performance there are several moments during which the celebratory atmosphere is suddenly cut off by an increasingly menacing appearance of a black hooded figure trying to enter the cabaret until it eventually manages to do so – a moment that on the one hand can be read as the arrival of the Nazis in Paris which lead to the closure of “Le Monocle”, but that on the other hand also offers a more general interpretation of queerphobic forces violently invading queer spaces and trying to destroy them. 

The ending leaves me speechless. The cabaret on stage is being closed for good while Imogen Banks interprets a hauntingly beautiful song composed by James Keane. Everyone who is not choked up already will have tears in their eyes as they watch the performers in their deep emotionality, even after the final curtain – a momentum that is carried on to the subsequent audience talk which is in every way one of a kind. Several audience members demonstrate their courage offering a deeply vulnerable insight into their personal lives showing how touched they were by the performance and also by the fact that dance is now offered regularly in Hexham.  

I leave Queen’s Hall deeply moved, not only because of my fellow audience members’ stories but also my own queer biography. Coming from a small town in conservative Bavaria, it’s so special to see such an important form of representation and precise social commentary to the current threats toward the queer community in a small rural town. It is an experience that I will cherish for a long time. Thank you to Dance City, Queen’s Hall and the amazing team around Mathieu Geffré!

Peter Sampel currently works at K3 Tanzplan Hamburg where he is responsible for the outreach programme. This text was created after the participation of a staff exchange at Dance City in Newcastle, made possible by EDN – European Dance Development Network. 


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