KlangHaus: 800 Breaths, Southbank Centre

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by guest critic Archie Whyld

A dozen or so of us were led to the roof of the Royal Festival Hall where we were told to expect: ‘A multi-sensory encounter of shifting sound, colour and light, which reinvents the gig-going experience as a site-responsive close-up standing performance.’ Whatever that is.

The roof space of the building has a boiler room, pipes and generators claustrophobic submarine feel and we were gently led through it by the actor, performer, musicians The Neutrinos and visual artist Sal Pitman. The guitarist checked his pulse, and then he checked mine, and then he gave me a nod of reassurance.

What was going on? The live music alternated between industrial electronic noise jazz and hypnotic acoustic, haunting lullabies. The projections and colour-scape, provided at points by an old fashioned slide projector, combined with the music and submarine architecture, to create a dreamlike and otherworldly experience. There was no narrative to speak of, other than the mention of breaths – 800 of them. Is this the number of breaths we take in an hour, the length of the performance?

Proceedings culminated with a projection of a cloudscape on the ceiling and the audience being led outside on to the roof of the building to be exposed to the air and the beautiful summer London skies. This is a beautiful moment. Is it theatre, though?

Depends on your definition. Post-dramatic theatre probably, in that there were no discernible characters, nor was there an apparent plot. It favoured feeling and mood rather than action, and in this respect it was hugely successful.

KlangHause: 800 Breaths runs through 23 July.

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Bianco, Southbank Centre

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By guest critic Rebecca Nice @rebeccajsnice

NoFit State Circus takes London by storm with a big show in a big top with grand ideas and huge audiences. A must-see on the London tourist and art scene, the slightly ominous looking grey tent is nestled into a winter wonderland of overpriced bars with a ticket price to match but the raucous, everyone-welcome, ‘roll up roll up’ nature of circus emanates from the tent in boundless quantities. Programmed by the Southbank Centre in a key Christmas location, Bianco will undoubtedly reach new audiences – which brings a certain responsibility to the oeuvre. The show not only introduces circus to new and well-seasoned theatregoers, but it sits within a concentration of productions in Southbank’s multiple venues that all want to be the cream of the crop. Based on a series of short acts that each display a specific circus skill, Bianco is accessibly fast paced but disappointingly repetitive in its lack of dramaturgy.

The main attraction of Bianco is a set made of scaffold ladders and truss that are separated, wheeled about and reset between acts. Audiences can move at their will, see things close up, from behind or directly underneath. The crew happily holler ‘mind ya backs’ as they restage and point you in new directions. This makes for constantly changing viewpoints; you always have the best seat in the house as you watch from wherever you want to be. Four towers form a central square area where truss cross bars support trapeze acts and tightrope walkers accompanied by live music. The greater sense of agency makes for a work that is almost promenade and immersive in terms of the sensory landscape. This culminates in a final snow scene where glowing white (foam) snowflakes descend upon our shoulders.

The original music ranges from folk to lyrical, acapella to rock and pop, as singer-musicians Andy Moore, Annette Loose, Doug Kemp and Matt Collins swap microphone for guitars, saxophone to accordion and double bass to drums. The strong musical score sets the tone and atmosphere for each piece and holds the work together during down moments where scenery is being set.

No Fit State travels and lives together, erecting and dismantling the big top and their lives to pack them away for the next place. This traditional circus lifestyle is evident in the precision, communication and identity of the cast and this connection feeds through into performance both in terms of the mechanics of the show and the performative camaraderie between characters.

Artistic Director Tom Rack and Director Firenza Guidi work here with a cast of seventeen, each with their own act, and it is the stringing of these together like a never-ending list of circus skills that is a downfall for the work. Bianco is long and relentless with one person after another selling their wares. Any loose plot or theme to mesh these phrases together are lost and the sheer volume of content begins to hinder the success of the piece as each new act blurs into another and recalling previous ones becomes impossible.

Out of a whopping number of acts (over eighteen), from solos to full ensembles, few stand out in either creating striking visual compositions or containing themes and characters that allow the circus skills to be fully shown off. The female juggling solo may not throw the highest club or make the most complex siteswaps but the throws and catches between the legs, behind the body and into the audience make a vivacious, flirty and clumsy character fully realised and incredibly funny, firmly rooted in her choreography and clowning. The sheer volume of this company in numbers of performers and size of the performance space provides tableaus not seen before. Five ropes in line, each with an individual aerial performer who turn and ascend in unison are a feast for the eyes. The entire cast emerging from the dark, lit by flaming torches or a man spinning inside his cyr wheel flanked by four figures dangling from aerial hoops make for striking compositions. A solo female performer hangs upside down from a rope with her legs bent and toes facing the ceiling. As the loose end of the rope drapes on top of her feet in a perfect curve, she lets herself slowly down as if magically walking upside down along this arc. Gems like this unexpected delicacy in a fresh take on an old trick appear sporadically in Bianco, but are in danger of being lost with the acts being so short and so many. Hula hoops are spun and aerial hoops rotate, performers swing from swags of loose hanging rope or shimmy along a tightrope. Jugglers swing on a trapeze, two aerial silks support solo and duet. A trampoline is rolled out, there is a handstand act and a contortionist with a wine glass balancing act. Box frames spin on high with strings of beads creating sparkling halos and another trapeze act appears, this time with a dress embellished with fluorescent lights. Many acts like these are cut short before they reach their true potential.

I delight in the seaside swim scene with up to nine performers diving from the heights of the big top onto a central trampoline. Dressed in old fashioned striped bathing suits with arm bands or goggles, this scene is visually wonderful but could be stronger if the choreography and swimming motifs were tighter and crisper. Compositions of performers diving one after the other can be more tightly woven into mini sketches. What if someone wearing a shark fin dived in, or someone belly-flopped and bounced everyone out of the sea? What if someone was scared of the water and got stuck on the high hanging rubber ring? Scenes like these don’t quite reach a climax in humour and pacing of skills.

After two hours and twenty minutes of high energy, constant tricks and emotive portraits of people laughing, shouting, twisting and turning on high, both audience and cast are exhausted and elated. A sinuous male aerial act returns to close the show on a rope as his curly locks and chiaroscuro muscles form a Christ-like visage. The lyrical piece is an unapologetic show of human beauty as the Vitruvian man soars in circular flight as artificial snow falls from the darkness. It is this image that leaves an imprint in my mind, of hundreds of tiny people looking up to the dark depths of the tent top, dancing in the snow.

Bianco runs through 22 January.

Tickets arranged by Theatre Bloggers.

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Closer, Udderbelly at Southbank Centre

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Five performers gleefully throw themselves around the stage inside Southbank’s upside down purple cow. Displays of tumbling, trapeze and acrobatics abound, but what makes Australian company Circa’s show different from other circus isn’t their physical skill. Closer is full of unadulterated joy and celebration of human intimacy. Personality is on show as much as circus skills are, and Closer is a powerful reminder to share our emotions with those around us because it feels great to connect with others.

The ensemble of five begin with a sequence more akin to contemporary dance than circus. It suits the show’s pared back aesthetic of black costumes on a black stage that draws all focus onto their movement. Without the spectacle now common in modern circus, there are only bodies in space and their relationships with each other. It’s a refreshing change from the often vapid glitz and glam that draws attention away from the performers. Even the sections with equipment and props keep it simple: a white rope, plain wooden chairs, single coloured hoops. Every other sequence is acrobatic and balancing on each other, showcasing feats of strength and agility and how bodies can interact with each other. These numbers are by far more interesting than the solo displays of trapeze, hula hooping, hand balancing and rope work, though they are not without skill.

There is no narrative framework, and the simplicity is reminiscent of children at play. Emotions are clearly expressed facially, be they resentment, longing, or happiness. They’re a joy to watch, even if the plot they act out is a secret looked in their own minds as they hug, cuddle and throw themselves into each other’s arms. Obviously circus performers are often in contact with each other’s bodies, but the usual lack of expression doesn’t facilitate character relationships. Here, though there are no explicit characters, the ever-changing relationships between the performers are always clear.

The promised intimacy was plentiful between the performers, but less so with the audience. Udderbelly isn’t a small venue by any means, so even though the front row might feel a thrill from the performers being so close, the back row’s experience is more diluted. There is some audience participation but in this large, nearly full venue it still doesn’t stretch to the “intimacy” label.

Closer is not typical contemporary circus, and it’s all the better for it. Apart from the corporate sponsor’s logo emblazoned across the backdrop before the start, Circa’s work avoids the pitfalls of the form; instead it looks at the basics of human interaction through movement and circus. The performers’ bodies moving through space and stretching themselves to physical limits demonstrates what we do for the people we love without any sequins or glitter.

Closer runs through 12 June.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

La Soirée, Southbank Centre

rsz_1bret_pfister_image_by_bertil_nilssonSouthbank 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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