Puffball, created in collaboration with Mark Storor, explores – through an uneven and sometimes confused mixture of circus techniques, physical theatre and performance art – the particular experiences of a group of young people aged 16-25 who all identify as LGBTQ (the Q stands for Questioning) and who shared their stories with the company. Some of these young people also star alongside the professional circus artists.
The show contains some incredibly powerful moments, including an opening sequence in which a trapeze artist struggles to emerge from a blood-filled clingfilm chrysalis. Combined with the haunting onstage vocals of Gabi Frödén singing a refrain composed of the words ‘Follow the heart’, it is a moving and mesmerising sequence, illustrative of the tension between pain and triumph that informs the work as a whole.
The circus elements of Puffball are the most successful: the sheer force of physical attraction is enacted in a tense, sexual and almost balletic sequence by Hamish Tjoeng and Diego F. Martinez on a suspended chain, and Alice Ellerby’s cloud swing routine uses drapery, light and air currents to great effect, creating a palpable sense of joy and hope amid what is often quite a dark, melancholy evening.
Yet, as beautiful as these circus sequences are, there are neither enough of them, nor are they as bold and daring as they might be; what’s missing is that sense of shared experience in the audience, signposted by simultaneous intake of breath or audible sighs of relief. This is a shame: circus is an art form that exists on the edge, characterised by danger and risk, by defying accepted rules and pushing the boundaries of the human body. Much of this is common to those who identify as LGBTQ, people who have often been found on the edge – whether through choice or because they have been forced there – and who are seen to take risks and live in defiance of widely accepted social norms. Given these parallels it is frustrating that so little is attempted through the sheer visual and physical power of circus to tell these young people’s stories.
Instead, Puffball feels more like a series of individual performance art pieces: two performers are seen throwing pink toys and Barbie dolls out of a bathtub, only for a man on the side of the stage to collect them and start playing with them; another girl sets fire to a pair of ruinously high heels; one man on hands-and-knees is pursued and beaten by two other men, before later being bathed and comforted by another.
A couple of members of the ensemble also grab a microphone to relate their stories. These are deep, personal tales – often the most intimate parts of people’s lives – but none is given sufficient time to develop, there’s little coherence between them and the laborious setting up and dismantling of equipment and cleaning of the stage between each set piece is distracting and contributes to the lack of continuity.
Work devised using both professionals and amateurs can often feels raw and unfinished, and Puffball is no exception. The combination of circus and theatricality never quite works, and some of the on-the-ground pieces are crude rather than distressing, though Jules Maxwell’s original score, played live onstage by a company of musicians, provides powerful musical and lyrical accompaniment, frequently rescues the visual imagery from the preposterous.
What Puffball does achieve, however, is a sense of tenderness and trust between the company, undoubtedly based on their shared creative process. It’s a pity that lead artist Storor didn’t take the process further, allowing each story with its own emotion and concept more room to develop and really impact the audience. Yet, whether or not you identify as LGBTQ, the human experience is universal, and the one or two moments of breathtaking beauty and suffering in Puffball resonate deeply.
Puffball will also play Cast, Doncaster, 1st-2nd May, and Royal Exchange, Manchester, 8th-9th June 2014.