Monday, April 26, 2010

Live from London: Circus Festival at the Roundhouse

[post 096]

I blazed through London for three jet-lagged days on my way to Paris, and managed to catch part of a circus festival (ongoing through May 16th) at the Roundhouse Theatre in fashionable Camden Town.

The Roundhouse is a great space. Originally a steam engine repair shed, it was first used as a performance venue in the 60s by political playwright Arnold Wesker, and soon was hosting such attractions as Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Peter Brook, the Living Theatre, and the Doors. When funding dried up in 1983, the space went dark until 1996. In 2004 it closed again, but this time for some big-time (and handsome) renovations, reopening in 2006. It is indeed round and quite impressive — its main space can house 1,800 people seated or 3,300 standing — and reminds you of such permanent circus buildings as the Cirque d'Hiver in Paris. The similarities don't end there: circus and variety arts constitute a major portion of their programming.

The show that impressed me most was a nouveau cirque production from France, Compagnie XY. One trademark of nouveau cirque is its choice to not use animal acts. Compagnie XY went much further: they chose to perform without circus hoopla: no applause cues, no "Ta-Da's!" no glitzy costumes, hardly any props (three, to be exact), and no dramatic music — not even a drum roll — just some charming Parisian melodies, full of accordions, and more reminiscent of the world of Edith Piaf than of the world of the circus.

It begins in the semi-dark. Very slowly the performers wander into the ring, eventually gathering themselves into a shadowy pyramid, after which they casually disperse. It of course picks up steam from there, but throughout retains a matter-of-fact manner; intense focus, of course, but calm nonetheless.

What we get instead of over-the-top pizazz is an ensemble of performers — all of them in the ring 90% of the time — working together to explore the countless possibilities of group acrobatics; more specifically, throwing each other every which way and constructing a dazzling array of pyramids. That's it. No jugglers, no wirewalkers, no clowns, no daredevils on motorcycles. Just group acrobatics. The only human cannonballs are launched by human hands and human feet.

The technical level is high, with many a 4-high in the mix, but what impresses is the inventiveness and the contagious joy of all these group creations. . As always, you had to be there, but this two-minute video shows the kind of work they do, though not the effect of the whole evening.

And some more photos:

Partner work this strong and inventive is at least a second cousin to physical comedy partner work, but I think it's more difficult to do actual comedy as part of a show like this. What do you play off of? There's less suspense, not much in the way of defined roles. There are no stars and no star turns. The (warm) message is one of mutual trust and cooperation. The few comic bits they tried work quite well, however, especially the attempts of the one rather heavy member of the troupe to perform feats usually associated with a light and lithe acrobat. Of course he ultimately succeeds as a topmounter, much to everyone's astonishment and delight. I also liked the flying "trust" leaps into the hands of about 10 catchers, all of whom collapse upon impact while the flyer walks nonchalantly away.

All in all, a sweet and terrific show. We were there opening night, and they got lots of applause without signaling for it, and a final ovation that was foot-stompingly loud and enthusiastically sustained.

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