These animal men – and women – hang suspended from the ceiling, limbs taut. Silks twine around ankles; bodies bend in unnatural ways before dropping to the floor, gasps gusting from the audience.
Beyond, the new circus show from Brisbane-based company Circa, attempts to explore the ‘animal’ element in us all. To this end they often wear oversized bunny heads and cuddly bear suits while pushing their bodies to the edge of their capabilities. It sounds absurd, but this dash of the cartoonish syncs with the feel of the piece, a little bit dreamlike, a little bit skewed, a little bit silly.
Broken down into a series of sequences set to music, the show features contortionism, aerial work and a nerve-racking balancing act. The performance as a whole is incredibly athletic and physical and, as with the company’s previous work, the body’s frailties are as much on display as its strengths. In the intimate tent setting it’s possible to see the performers’ muscles pulse, their arms tremble with the effort involved and the sweat course down their faces.
Group displays are interspersed with solo turns. A plastic water bottle is used to replicate the spinal creaks and cracks as the performers twist and jerk around the stage, voodooing each other, and even though we can see the source of the sound, the audience still wince as one with each little crick. One of the performers arches her back and Linda Blairs around the room in the most unnerving manner, later she slithers towards the roof in a reptilian fashion.
Failure, or at least the potential for it, is written into their work. A balancing act featuring tin cans and a set of boxes threatens to go wrong – and at one point one box does drop to the ground – but the fact that we can see how difficult it is to achieve, and can read the strain on the performer’s face and in their eyes, makes it easier to appreciate the skill involved. If it was completely seamless, smooth and slick as sticky-backed plastic (or Cirque du Soleil), it wouldn’t be quite so entrancing.
On the other hand, when things go to plan, it’s pretty astounding too. In one of the most staggering sequences a performer almost casually completes a Rubik’s cube while her co-stars hurl themselves at her, clambering over and up her as if she were a tree.
Familiar stunts are rewritten. The act of squeezing through a stringless tennis racket is twisted by having it performed by one of the troupe’s female members. In lace stockings and a beribboned basque, she edges it over her body, but the sexual/striptease elements of the act are turned in on themselves. Her breasts refuse to play along and she has to shove and smush and force them through the racket’s aperture. She ends up with the racket resting around her hips, its handle waggling like a phallus.
This is a warmer show than some of their previous productions, the backing music including Frank Sinatra and Amanda Palmer playing Radiohead on her ukulele. The introduction of the human voice into the mix softens the overall aesthetic, creating points of connection and juxtaposition. The bear suits and bunny heads add to this effect, though as a device they feel underdeveloped. The thematic focus on the human/animal divide is fascinating in theory, but having set out their terms, the company don’t mine this seam as much as they might. This results in a captivating display of contemporary circus, but one that doesn’t fully tap into the promised beyond.
Circa: Beyond is at London Wonderground from 3rd – 23rd June 2013.