Underman is the Swedish term for the base partner in a circus duo: the under-man. The Swedish company Cirkus Cirkor have attempted to create a work that doesn’t rest solely on the spectacular. They have stripped back the artifice and made a virtue of simplicity. Underman is concerned with the nature of circus itself; it’s open-ended and deliberately uneven, rough yet also, in many ways, extraordinary.
Performer Matias Salmenaho looks a bit like a Viking with his chequered shirt and epic beard. With impressive ease, he lifts both Mattias Andersson and Peter Aberg like two pieces of luggage. At the same time, musician Andreas Tengbald walks across the stage holding two guitars. Weight is a running theme, whether it’s emotional – in the brief confessions the performers make to the audience – or physical, in the show’s risk-taking routines. Narrative occurs, though in unequal doses and in a suggestive rather than representative way.
The piece intentionally veers away from the spectacular; its tone is understated and direct, vulnerable and confident at the same time. The confessional is equated with the physical; every demanding routine – such as the juggling of kettlebells – is followed by a song or two for relief. There’s a genuine casualness to the show which is juxtaposed with the formality and power of the company’s visual language.
Underman is also transparent in its process; it begins with the three performers recalling their absent partners, and ends with them working with each other to create routines which are often breath-taking. The production takes its audience on a journey, always skimming along the edges of the personal without ever revealing too much. It makes reference to the life of a travelling artist without passing judgement; failure is as acknowledged as success, in keeping with the honesty that marks out much of the show.
What blunts the piece’s potency is its resistance to fully commit to its form; this is particularly evident in the way the performers turn to the audience at the end of every routine: this excessive willingness to highlight their technical skills, instead of developing character or narrative, is very traditional and feels somewhat reductive in the broader context of Underman.
Nevertheless, the work as a whole is an energetic and challenging piece. It’s a show that reveals as much about its performers as it does about its form, and the way in which it toys with technical skill as well as drawing attention to the power of music and lighting on-stage is testament to its ambition.
Underman is on at the Roundhouse as part of CircusFest 2012. Visit the Roundhouse website for more information on the festival.