Alone in the lift at North Finchley’s Artsdepot building, I have another panic about Footwear. I just don’t know if mine’s Appropriate. Appropriate Footwear, that joyful jingle of P.E. teachers, Boxing Day hikers and experimental theatre directors has haunted me throughout my feeble attempts at exercise and the like. I’m not the kind of person who succeeds in shoe appropriacy. Sports shop assistants treat me with contempt. I struggle to touch my toes.
My invitation to explore the aerial apparatus of Ockham Razor’s new circus theatre work Not Until We Are Lost had me reaching instantly for my lonely pair of plimsoles. Despite my lack of alternatives, I’m still worrying about this choice as I enter the rehearsal room and am confronted with the mammoth scaffolding construction that forms the performance space of the piece. Completely dominating the large room, the apparatus has the look of an industrial climbing frame, a bare and skeletal playground.
For now, the structure stands quiet and imposing, but the company shows me how its simple framework holds a remarkable diversity of possibilities for manipulation, creating new spaces, angles and dynamics. One facet, made up of horizontal bars, has been nicknamed the Stave. Another swings heavily to and fro, and can be hoisted up to create a diagonal latticework which the performers scale, slide down and suspend themselves from.
“Our equipment is very much “‘form follows function’; it’s practically designed,’” Alex Harvey, a performer and co-founder of the company, tells me. “We’ve designed the equipment to suit our bodies and to promote the most interesting movement.” For Ockham’s Razor – who design radically new apparatus for every production – spaces and structures offer up choreoraphies that themselves point towards narrative. The equipment is produced first, and the movement and physical relationships it demands – the dynamics of bodies in space – tell their own stories.
For this production, the springboard was “walls”; “spaces that separate”. For Harvey, “it’s a catalyst. Anywhere there’s a contradiction or a clash between two things promotes movement, or a need for change. If you come up against something, you want to fight it – you want to cross that barrier… or scale it. Anything that feels like a division is a catalyst for movement.” It’s a truism that drama arises from conflict and the desire for change, and the theatre inherent in the human confrontation with barriers is immanent here.
The tilted lattice, then, divides “the space above and the space below”, a duality that only hints at how the aerialists are planning to animate both dimensions. The tension and balance that keeps the performers in the air, and their trust in one another to be dangled, caught and thrown from such a platform offer up the real relationships that anchor the narrative. For Harvey, the performers are not acting, since what is presented on stage is real precariousness; actual vulnerability: “It’s physical theatre in the most extreme sense”.