Wednesday, April 20, 2016

'Circa: Closer' at the Udderbelly, 19th April 2016

Circus is usually all about razzle-dazzle. Sequined costumes, rictus grins, glittery lipstick, flaming rings - stuff like that. Circa push against all that, their shows straddling contemporary dance and circus via sleek monochrome minimalism. Their latest at the South Bank's Udderbelly is Closer, which, as its name suggests, is all about intimacy and physical contact: the acrobatics of human interaction.

With front row seats I got to observe them at close range. Awe is all but inevitable on viewing intense feats of strength, balance and timing. To a classily refined indie-tinged soundtrack they tie themselves up in knots high above the hard floor, arrange themselves atop one another into living human sculptures and confidently stroll over each other's strong-as-steel bodies. Best of all, at close range you observe the tiny tics that others might miss: quickly fading crimson hand-prints on backs; eyes locked ahead in fierce concentration while subtly shifting your weight to maintain balance; or the exhalation after successfully enduring four people standing atop your body.

Simply performing feats like this is worthy of praise. The audience gasps and applauds with each triumphant moment, each of us marvelling at the dedication needed to tune the human body to such a high standard of excellence. Frankly, just watching attractive, incredibly fit people in skintight lycra flexing their muscles is far from the worst time you can have in London on a Tuesday night.

And yet I found myself surprisingly unmoved by Closer. At least for the first two thirds the performers appeared to have been instructed to display no personality or emotion. While that fits right in with the minimalist musical setlist and staging, it got a bit creepily cold-hearted. Despite obviously the five having perfect trust and synchronisation, I couldn't detect any camaraderie or even pleasure in their movements. 

Staring into the blank, expressionless face of someone dangling, motionless, from a trapeze made me think of dolls, robots or puppets - presumably rather far from the intimacy they appear to be going for. The parade of hyper-taut flexing bodies eventually reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia; in which the muscled human form is fetishised by the fascist film-maker, linking her subjects to ancient Greek statuary.

Mercifully, things take a turn for the personable in the final couple of segments. Some audience interaction is pleasant and amusingly flirty, splashing a bit of much-needed comedy into affairs. Similarly, a spirited hula-hoop routine, while not exactly breaking new ground, is as good as any hoop routine I've seen previously. There's even a spot of karaoke where we're asked to sing along with The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony (though, confusingly this doesn't seem to actually go anywhere).

It feels a little churlish to criticise performers like this. They're close to the pinnacle of human physical perfection, their physiques the product of hours of pain, gallons of sweat and rivers of tears. Who can imagine what they've had to sacrifice to be able to entertain us like this? Even so, about two thirds of Closer left me cold - far from feeling closer I felt like the performers were consciously distancing themselves from the audience and from each other.


Circa: Closer is at the Udderbelly until 12th June 2016. Tickets here.

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