The Australian company Circa return to the Barbican with a performance that takes its inspiration from the world of vaudeville and burlesque.
In Wunderkammer the performers’ bodies are in constant motion and the results are surprising, physically daring and formally ambitious. Director and designer Yaron Lifschitz takes his cue from the form of musical composition known as fugue, in which a theme is developed through imitation and repetition. In this sense, Wunderkammer is a constantly evolving architecture of bodies bending, twisting, sliding and flying. It’s enthralling to watch the shifting compositions as the neon blue and rose-red spotlights illuminate the almost bare stage. The acrobats swing in and out of character; the women in their red heels, men in sleeveless vests, tap dancing on bubblewrap and sniffing balloons. An acrobat on the ground interprets and reflects the movement of another on a trapeze. A solo piece transforms into a full composition of interacting bodies. There are pauses in the movements followed by releases, kinetic explosions, retractions.
Wunderkammer is a piece of incredible skill and intricacy; there are moments of real poetry when the acrobats move around the stage like atomic particles with a physics of their own. The results are thrilling, spectacular, infused with the glitter of vaudeville and a glimpse of Dada cabaret. There’s a brilliantly madcap moment in the show when an acrobat recites all the countries of the world and all elements of the periodic table whilst the others bounce, tumble, jump and play to the rhythm of his words; the music of his words becomes part of the routine. The most absorbing moments of the show balance high-risk acrobatics with a strong sense of narrative potential and constant changes in style.
With his background in theatre and an evident passion for visual narrative, Lifshitz is concerned with giving a context to the technical language of circus and its stylistic development. Wunderkammer leans in this direction, however it doesn’t fully achieve its ambitions in this area, remaining too focused on circus as spectacle. For all the production’s technical precision and physical skill, the performance doesn’t take into account the most theatrical aspect of circus: the potential for failure. The fact that there’s no room for error in this show means each mistake breaks the visual tension; it’s almost as if the show sabotages its emotional arc by not going far enough in this direction. As a result some of the scenes feel rather cold, and this in turn impacts on the otherwise flawless sinuous fluidity of the performers and their movements.
That said, Wunderkammer is breath-taking. It’s almost mathematical in form, bringing circus and vaudeville together in a dazzling physical spectacle. It might not defy categorical boundaries as much as it claims to, but it is a sophisticated piece packed with ideas, a contemporary cabinet of curiosities inhabited by a cast of virtuoso performers.