Cog in the wheel is a street dance performance choreographed and conceptualised by self-taught dancer, artist and teacher Billy Read. The piece is performed by a mix of deaf and hearing dancers; Billy, Warren Murray, Ben Randall, Kevaughn Laing and Kameel Myrie. The piece explores themes of living in a capitalist society, technology and how these things are linked to our perceived self-worth. To effectively break down this piece I think we need to discuss the relationship the majority of people have to their work.

Work. Go home .Check your emails. Be on call. Check your emails. Work. Begrudgingly accept a phone call from your boss when you’re on holiday. Check your emails. Be available. Work. Say you can do the overtime. Work. Check your emails. Work. Check your work phone. Take up a hobby. Capitalise of it. Work.  Check your emails. Work. Take a break.  But first just one thing.

I think you get the picture.

A huge aspect of society at the moment is hustle culture. We are coming out of a global pandemic that for many people plunged them into a state of financial insecurity. Due to this, through lockdown many people began turning their hobbies into jobs. Due to the rising costs of living for many people the goal is no longer to make enough money to buy a house, but to make enough to pay the rent. To get by. To put food on the table. So many people base their self-worth on how much work they do. To the point that work becomes of the upmost importance. Overtaking rest, comfort and self-care.  Capitalism tells us that we are most valuable when we are contributing in a monetary way. If we aren’t working we are lazy and not fulfilling our full potential. Technology and the rise of its prevalence in the world we live in, has made work a harder world to escape and disconnect from. How are you meant to wind down when your boss can ring you at the dinner table? Or tag you on Facebook? Cog in the wheel highlights this by incorporating phones within the piece.

Dance moves aside the performers are visually striking in what they are wearing. All  in red jumpsuits the uniformity of the dancers takes away their individuality. It highlights how they are not to be seen as people with stories and personalities, but as gears in a machine. As a means to creating a product that can generate revenue. The stylistic choice of the jumpsuits cleverly and clearly emphasises how they are homogenised, only to be recognised for their work. At the beginning of the piece one of the dancers (Warren Murray) is to one side on his own. He looks lost and his movements are static, robotic and disjointed. This changes when he joins the other workers/dancers. They move together as if they are one body. Fluid with a sense of unity between them. Each movement is effortless and graceful, yet simultaneously purposeful and meticulous. If you aren’t working are you really valuable in society? Are you really contributing? Team work makes the dream work after all. In a society where capitalism has become a factory of sorts. Where wage workers have become exploited. Where you’ll work for £9.50 an hour when food costs have risen by 10%. But you part of a team, so it’s worth it right? In sections of the performance one worker sits/breaks down whilst another reboots him. This could be a commentary on burn out and how work is often prioritised over health and wellbeing.

The brilliance and importance of this piece lies in the time it’s been created in. Inflation has affected so many people and has left many in a cycle of working in whatever way they can to get by. Whilst they know they will never have enough money to truly get out of their financial impoverishment. The context that is behind this piece pushes forward its relevance, Cog in the wheel also holds moments of irony. Capitalism being told through an art form can be seen as something radical and rebellious. Particularly after the governments comments in the pandemic that artists should just hang up their paintbrushes, their pens, cameras and find solace In working in IT or tech. Something comfortable and regular. The way the dancers move throughout this piece is at times jarring and non-human. This is done in a way that captivates the audience and keeps them in the world Read is trying and achieving to create.

Cog in the wheel is a beautifully choregraphed piece whilst being thought provoking, entertaining and mesmerizing. The talent of the dancers shines through as they communicate this story in a way that can be extracted easily from their movements. It’s a story book unfolding on stage and it’s truly spectacular.

Ray Vincent-Mills
Copyright 2022

Film commissioned by Creative City Grants Birmingham 2022