Closer, Udderbelly at Southbank Centre

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.

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