By Laura Kressly
Circus is a a marvellous showcase of physical skill and the possibilities of the human body, but with this often comes a sexualised view of women and men dominating the form with their strength. Tabarnak certainly focuses on the latter, with the women serving more as support to the acts. Fortunately there’s feminist circus in the form of Casting Off that challenges women’s role in society and the circus.
That’s not to say Tabarnak isn’t good. The four men in the cast form complex human towers that are three people high, but interlinked to form architectural structures crowned with the two women in the ensemble. With a church-themed aesthetic, it’s a suitable use of the human body to emulate magnificent buildings. Pole work is done on equipment hoisted up on their shoulders rather than on the floor or a platform, and a long wooden board that serves as the base for balancing acts is also held by the men rather than other bits of equipment. The flips, twists and balancing acts are made all the more impressive on human bases.
This isn’t just a vehicle for strength, though. There are playful sections taking place on roller skates, and a water tank inspires some clowning. These add some necessary variation in tone and shows that men aren’t just brute strength. The female cast members are still underused, posing prettily in some sections and cracking whips in others, still more require them out of the action all together.
There aren’t any men at all in Casting Off. The acrobatics and balancing that are primarily the domain of men in Tabarnak are here owned by women of three generations. The eldest, certainly in her 50s if not older, flips and contorts as well as the younger two. She physically and verbally jokes about her age and plays on audience surprise at her agility. As a trio, they construct their balancing acts accompanied by extensive lists of female responsibilities and expectations. It’s a subtle, non-confrontational choice but one that’s barbed. I hope the men in the audience get it.
The women build up to a series of swings and catches from a metal frame fixed to the venue ceiling. The act is comparable to a static trapeze, and with the stage’s small size, one of performers swings and flips over the audience before catching another’s hands. It’s a harrowing climax that evokes audible gasps from those underneath.
Casting Off provides great contrast to the big, showy circus shows at the Fringe. Though Tabarnak does what it does well, there’s little that feels innovative. Casting Off, in all its DIY, crocheted, small-scale glory is joyful and refreshing. It’s a playful reclamation of the big top from a male-dominated form.
Tabarnak runs through 25 August.
Casting Off runs through 26 August.
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