Thursday, April 30, 2015

'A Simple Space' at the Udderbelly

Most people dread getting dragged up on stage during a performance. Not me. Sure it's scary in that "I hope my flies aren't undone" sort of way, but not once have I ever regretted sitting on the front row. That said, I had some serious misgivings when a smiling performer extended his hand and hoisted me up onto the gym mat. A couple of minutes later I was lying flat on my back with an acrobat balanced on my outstretched palms. 

The experience cut to the heart of  A Simple Space. Being inches below a woman standing on her palms, an intense gaze burning a hole in the stage, veins wrapped around her muscles like steel cables and beads of sweat mazing their way down her face cements the effort, concentration and toll that these gymnastics take.

Composed of seven young acrobats from Australian company Gravity & Other Myths, the show makes an austere first impression. The set is a square mat with a couple of lights at each corner and the performers are clad in khaki and pastel tops, creating an effect not unlike being trapped in a GAP advert. We soon realise that everything that's not vital to the performance has been stripped away- the company even do their own lighting cues live on stage.

Minimalist it may be, but the aesthetic heightens the many feats we see before us. These range from human sculptures that bristle with limbs, to performers balancing in shaky human towers, being whirled around the stage by their wrists, leaping onto each other's backs or being gracefully tossed in parabolic arcs towards each other. This is standard acrobatics fare, but it's still thrilling as all hell. There's something adrenaline inducing in watching someone plummet towards the ground, only to be caught at the last moment and bounce up smiling, or the wobbly intensity of a man balancing three people on his head.

There's a bedrock of skill here that all but guarantees A Simple Space will entertain, but what's most interesting is where they deviate from expectations.The classical acrobat show is all tassled outfits, vaseline smiles, safety nets, circus lighting and glitter, shooting for the goal of showing the performer as an effortlessly graceful automaton, an image that this company are keen to subvert.

They achieve it by emphasising anatomical and emotional effort. Key to this is the obvious fatigue; the performers going red in the face as their muscles shiver n' shake under the strain. All this is accompanied by a symphony of grunts, groans and moans - leaving us in no doubt as to the effort going into every motion. Another deviation from the norm is baking in elements of failure. Many of the acts are competitions between the company - the most eyecatching a backflip contest. Stood in a row, they take turns backflipping to a rhythmic beat, eliminating a person when they fall to the group.

Paradoxically, the constant sight of failure makes the show that much more impressive. It drums into us the effort, training and skill needed to do even the simplest gymnastic action, as well as allowing us to empathise with what's going on before our eyes. It all feels extremely modern - the scuffed knees and bleeding feet in perfect sync with a contemporary YouTube/Vine fails orientated audience.

As far as an hour's entertainment on the South Bank goes it's totally worthwhile. Sure, there's not a huge amount of depth to it - but then you don't go to an acrobatic show expecting a life changing emotional experience. For what it is, it's superb; a thousand thumps, gasps and smiles combining into a straight-up fun tapestry of tumbling. 

A Simple Space is at the Udderbelly, South Bank until 24th May. Tickets here.

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