There’s something magical about the Big Top. Over-priced popcorn, bad beer, the heat of close bodies and the dream of running away to a life of scrappy glamour and adventure. In the sharp December chill, NoFit State’s Bianco feels like a warm burst of excitement. Their enthusiasm, bravado and considerable talent are a blaze against the merciless cold.
This is a circus of old, a celebration of human spectacle and camaraderie and one of the last true travelling circuses left in the UK. It’s clear from the off that there’s a strong bond at work here, as the performers attack the Big Top like a rag tag band of double-jointed pirates that have broken in during the dead of night.
There’s no real narrative, but an irreverence and a heavy dose of the ramshackle that make up the show’s charm: juggling clubs are dropped, performers stumble and giggle and stagger their way across the promenade stage. There’s a cacophony of languages at work as the performers yell at one another (and the audience) in a mix of English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. It’s wild and madcap and disorganised, but the show’s real skill and interest lies in the language of spectacle, and of the human body.
In some ways, the clumsiness and standing, promenade format of the show is particularly effective. Many of the acts take place well above us, and there is a real sense of gravity as performers dangle overhead on silks and ties and ropes. Audiences desensitised by years of acrobats and contortionists hawking their abilities on Britain’s Got Talent can’t dismiss as easily a woman suspended by rope doing the splits ten feet above their own heads. The strength and strain and skill involved are palpable, the risk even more so.
Francois Bouvier’s tightrope act is a particular treat. Watching him crawl and leap and glide across the wires is made all the more gripping thanks to his own earnest concentration. No superhuman spider monkey, Bouvier’s performance required commitment, dedication, and a little bit of luck. If we had seats, we would be on the edges of them. When he ends the act by pulling off a perfect backflip landing on the wire, minds are lost in the crowd.
Bouvier’s act is one of the few that takes place at ground level, and brings to light one of Bianco’s biggest practical struggles – audience wrangling. At odds with the spontaneity the performers seem to revel in, the audience are shuffled around the top between each act with increasingly specificity. Groups are split, put back together, the back becomes the front, circles are formed and, inevitably, whole swathes of the show are missed by some viewers. This not-at-all-whimsical practical concern also punctures the atmosphere – bendy pirates do not comply with Health and Safety regulations. For all the impact the up-close and personal staging has, by the end of the constant shuffling one wonders if a decent, comfy rig might not have been a better option.
That said, Bianco really is a nondenominational winter treat. If the contortion, acrobatics, fire-eating and death-defying feats are not enough, then go to witness the thrilling connection between these performers at work. As fascinating as the circus is, watching them manipulate the Big Top, expertly dismantling and constructing each act, cheering each other on and even acting as human counterweights to the aerial performers is a testament to human connection and ensemble, in and of itself.
Bianco is on until 22nd January 2017 as part of the Southbank Centre’s Winter Festival. Click here for more details.