by guest critic Rebecca JS Nice
The Underbelly Festival Southbank is like a mini Edinburgh Festival where visitors cocoon between pop up bars, fake grass, fairy lights and giant flowerpots have a sense of exclusivity, as they wonder through to enjoy the bars as much as the shows. This vibe will stay all summer and I will no doubt be returning to sip Pimm’s in the sun whether I have show tickets or not. But having seen both currently billed shows twice now, in Edinburgh and London, their quality, popularity and longevity cannot be argued.
Compagnie XY live and work together, sharing each other’s rhythms and routines. The work they make as a collective captures this ebb and flow of human energy and emotion within a larger group rather than the individual, reflecting their chosen lifestyle. In their latest piece, an impressive twenty-two acrobats fight, flirt and fly through the after-work dusk, but It’s Not Yet Midnight… peaks too soon and winds down with the whisper of mid-week fatigue rather than the frenzied collapse following a blinding night out.
Southbank Centre has a spiegeltent in residence under the Hungerford Bridge; it’s a sexy, glam, velvet and mirrored thing miles away from shabby travelling circuses with tired acts. It’s a fitting home for La Soirée, a heady mix of circus, cabaret and variety performance from around the world. Each act has a distinct character combined with extraordinary skill sets, often leaning towards adult and edgier content. Though the characters created as a vehicle for the skills on display generally rely on stereotypes, this doesn’t diminish the impressiveness of the techniques. The sumptuous environment and range of talent on show makes for a frivolous, fun night of light entertainment with heaping dose of sex appeal.
Though not solely circus, La Soirée seems to focus on circus arts and use other performance styles to add variation. They also change the lineup on a regular basis, so any given night is unique. These artists are multi-skilled, too: The English Gents are a pair of balancing acrobats, who separately are a bubble artist and a pole dancer. Captain Frodo contorts himself through tennis racquets as well as doing a bit of comedy magic. My favourite is Asher Treleaven, who has a sexual Diablo routine as well as a side-splittingly funny stand up act around a Mills & Boon novel. Then there’s a hoop artist, an aerialist using a single strap and a hand balancer on a motorbike. A singer, and modern clown/comedian Mooky with a double act composed of herself and a willing audience member complete the lineup. All of these performances take place on a tiny round stage, no more than 2 metres across.
There’s plenty of subversion in the event, as there always has been in circus – the exotic on display for the everyday Joe to get a glimpse at those who are unwilling or unable to conform to the status quo. From large tattoos and a lesbian kiss, to deliberately dislocated joints and extreme flexibility, that “otherness” is still very much present, even though its more mild forms no longer shock us. That subversion is sexy, titillating and occasionally grotesque, making the groups of business people on corporate outings squirm as well as gasp. It’s so easy to be impressed by the physical abilities, but the additional layers of characterization make these acts stand out from others I’ve seen previously. I don’t see much circus, cabaret or variety, but La Soirée has such a high quality range of acts that it’s hard not to be impressed.
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