Shrimp Dance: how psychiatric medication is affecting the environment

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Shrimp Dance was performed by Michael Henry at Platform Glasgow on 22 October 2017 as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. It explores themes of consumerism, ecological crisis and mental health – drawing on research which has shown the impact of psychiatric medicine on the environment. Review by Joe Turnbull.

Photo of a man dressed in underwear posed under a spotlight

Michael Henry performing Shrimp Dance

What happens when you feed shrimp Prozac? That may sound like the drunken ramblings of an irresponsible biology student, dreaming up an ill-considered experiment. But alas. The reality is far more depressing. It turns out, our truly maddening society is medicating itself to such an extent that Prozac is leaching into the rivers and oceans in high enough concentrations that it is affecting the behaviour of shrimp.

That’s according to research carried out by marine biologist Dr. Alex Ford, with whom dancer Michael Henry has collaborated with to create Shrimp Dance. This finding is shocking. And it had me hooked. As a reviewer you’re not supposed to assess intention, but execution. That also means you shouldn’t let your preconceived ideas about a piece cloud your judgement of it. But it is hard to escape the fact, I was not expecting this intriguingly-billed piece to amount to a man writhing in his underpants for an hour.

After waiting patiently for a good 15 minutes for the show to start in earnest, as Henry wriggled and squirmed, it eventually dawned on me that this was going to be it. This realisation allowed me to cast aside what I’d read about this piece and zone in on the performance. It was full of poise. It dealt with an overwhelmingly large issue, in environmental catastrophe, through the infinitesimal minutiae of simple, spasmodic body movements.

The music – partly played live by a guitarist, and partly electronic ­– was deeply resonant, its pulsing rhythms adding to the overall sense of foreboding. A projected background which flitted between images of gushing water and close-ups of shrimp was simple, yet atmospheric. A circle hovering just in front of the projected background acted as a porthole for different visuals, at times becoming the moon.

Henry’s movements became increasingly distressed, as he twitched through the lifecycle of a shrimp high on Prozac. There were some fleeting moments of poetry towards the end, Henry describes the crisis as “a great wave of human sadness sent out to sea”.

Michael Henry performing naked from the waist up against an abstract yellow backgorund

Michael Henry performing Shrimp Dance

The answer to the question at the top of the piece is that shrimp on Prozac swim to the surface. They are supposed to be bottom-dwellers. This causes them to get eaten by sea-birds. “The seagulls eat the shrimp. The humans eat the shrimp. Capitalism eats the humans.”

There was real promise in Henry’s off-kilter musings, but they needed extra development – such statements ring a little hollow for the uninitiated. Whilst I am on board, not everyone is comfortable with the notion that our capitalist society is inherently sick – Henry will have to do more to convince them.

But the main issue with this piece is pacing. It was way off. Henry came to a stop on at least four occasions which could have ended the show, before carrying on.

Personally, I’d like more of the poetry and for it to be brought in earlier. Some other method of communicating Dr. Ford’s research – perhaps through the projected visuals – might also help counter the bewilderment and disconnect I felt initially. Nevertheless, Shrimp Dance is a weighty, at times disturbing, meditation on a deeply troubling phenomenon.