Throughout Backbone, the audience can hear the ten acrobats on stage calling out to one another. At first they shout when they are ready, but as the show progresses they rely on yells and calls to indicate when to release, when to extend, and who to catch next.
It’s like watching a crew of sailors rigging the mast of a great ship. They haul one another on to their shoulders, heaving the final body in to place, before cascading to the ground like an unfurling sail.
This communication is key when you are spinning a fellow performer around by the legs, or are about to throw them over backwards. It becomes essential when the company all wear metal buckets on their heads, and assemble themselves into a nine-person pyramid. The final piece of the structure finding her way to the top without any sight at all, relying on touch and hearing alone.
This show is full of inventive ways of bearing weight and finding balance. With a childlike eagerness the group creates unusual structures and body shapes. Performers are held aloft by their jaw, and swung around like skipping ropes. Their curiosity seemingly unquenchable.
It lends the show a rehearsal room feel, in which we see the group constantly imposing new restrictions on one another to draw out different results. How they respond to these collectively imposed rules, also conjures up a variety of imagined locations.
When all ten performers balance long wooden sticks on their brows, and spread out across the space it gives the impression that they are all at sea. Their muscles quivering minutely to counterbalance the roll of the unsteady deck beneath them.
The specific detail of these movements variously evokes a medieval maze, a gladiatorial amphitheatre, and even a board game. This creation of landscape and location is so satisfying to watch, that it leaves you a little disappointed when it doesn’t accumulate into anything.
Ideally, this montage of locations would lead us to understand something more about what the company is interrogating, more about what the show is actually about. But it doesn’t.
It’s an extremely democratic show. There are no main characters. No one performer emerges as the hero of the story, or the focus of the performance, which is a huge achievement in itself. But it does mean that it feels more like a devised piece rather than something intentionally composed or curated. It honours a multiplicity of ideas rather than serving the vision of a single artist.
This is great in one sense because it reflects the very nature of what the performers are doing – working together, but it means the show lacks a focal point. Physical theatre needn’t satisfy an intellectual enquiry but there must be a coherent physical narrative which unfolds as the piece continues. Some sequences are highly choreographed, and others have the exhilarating sense of being improvised, but neither necessarily unlocks what is at the heart of the show.
This is not to take away from the extraordinary skill of the performers, however. They are athletes. Beginning with an empty space they start to jump and throw themselves into one another’s arms, gradually teaching us the palette of movements they are working with. Before building these elements into larger structures, longer sequences.
Sections of the show are naturally high octane and physically daring, but some of the most impressive sequences are those that require sustained effort. Maintaining a physical fluidity with the added weight of a stone, or the challenge of responding to the slow rhythmic strains of the cello.
The live music is stunning. Supporting the physicality with long, languid notes that evoke the Middle East, and occasional flurries of something that sounds more Romani. Movement and stillness, sound and silence, all are executed with equal care.
Backbone is on at the Southbank Centre until 19 August. Click here for more information.