Not the parading-elephants and lions-leaping-through-flaming-hoops kind of circus that increasingly raise twinges in the ethical parts of our brains. No, these are acrobats-and-clowns type circuses, and more than that, they are performance-art circuses, pushing the boundaries of the genre until it bleeds into dance, installation art, and abstract theatre.
The Roundhouse Theatre is at the centre of the current flurry of activity with their CircusFest, which brings avant-garde circus companies from all over the world to London. The British Film Institute has even gotten in on the game with a film festival of circus films (La Strada, Dumbo, Wings of Desire) in its South Bank cinema. So, after an afternoon at the Reform Club on our first day in London, we loped off to the Roundhouse to see French acrobatic company Compagnie XY and their current show, Le Grand C.
My line of reasoning went like this: how better to keep ourselves awake through this first, brutal evening of jet-lag than to toddle off to something as rollicking as the circus. Time-ravaged, we lay down for a brief nap and almost managed to sleep through the performance. I jolted awake a mere 45 minutes before it began (after forming the best-laid plans to leave at least half an hour earlier). D cast a sideways glare at me as we loped listlessly off to Chalk Garden for the evening. Hey, I thought, it's not like the time I dragged him off to a day in New York that consisted entirely of a Beckett matinee and an Ionesco evening.
I hadn't considered the possibility of a minimalist circus.
You see, Le Grand C starts extremely simply and slowly. A few human bodies, plainly clothed and varied in form, a few basic actions. Everyone stands, in crepuscular light.* Eventually, they bring on a log, and place it on its end. Each member of the ensemble takes a slow, deliberate turn standing on the log. The last to try is the stockiest cast-member - the strongman - who struggles mightily and sweatily with the small surface he must balance upon.
We wonder why we are here.
But the point, I think, is to get us to look at these movements in detail, to understand the basic vocabulary of acrobatics and respect the effort and control that goes into even the simplest of actions. The company was undoing the conditioning that allows us to operate the incredibly complex mechanism of the body without being paralyzed by a perpetual sense of wonder. Consider how it feels to receive a minor injury that interferes with something as everyday as the functioning of your hand, the motions of chewing, or the ease of your gait. Suddenly the coordination of all those muscles and joints and nerve impressions seems impossibly cacophonic. As every yoga devotee knows, merely balancing on one leg for any period of time requires astonishing control. We forget the complexity of the body, just like we disregard the workings of the airplanes we fly in or the computers that connect us. We just know that they work, and the miracle fades.
This miracle is what Compagnie XY reasserts for us in the glacial opening minutes of Le Grand C. Unlike many acrobats, they try not to make their actions look effortless, but to make them seem hard. Grueling, in fact.
This is not to say that these movements lack grace. In fact, by simplifying the movements and allowing us to see the mechanics of each gesture, Compagnie XY hits on a performance genre that is cross between the lines and lifts of contemporary dance, the feats of gymnastics and acrobatics, and (in one very odd section) the battling scrum of a rugby match. (I had to wonder how this sort of a form would be received in a country with a widespread cheerleading culture. I kept hearing Sue Sylvester in my head, screaming, "Terrible, babies, terrible! You think this is hard? I'm passing a gallstone as we speak! That's hard!".)
From this minimalist foundation, XY builds a structure of human bodies - leaping, balancing, flying, falling bodies. The tricks that follow are almost entirely accomplished with the actors' own forms, aided by only the simplest of props: the log, a basic see-saw, a long belt of fabric. Human pyramids and towers go up, and then acrobats leap and flip from the top of one to the apex of another. Cannons are made out of groups of dancers who fling their colleagues' bodies headlong across the stage and into waiting arms. Dancers dive and fall and curl around each other's shoulders, stomach, legs - clinging and catching and courting disaster.
As the movements build in complexity, this much becomes clear: acrobatic circuses, at their core, are about the mechanics of bodiliness (as shown by the opening) and the workings of trust. Thus they are works (for performers and audience) about affection, community, connection. They reassure us about the bonds that hold human bodies together in labyrinthine structures of support. It fills you with a warm feeling; you wish you belonged to a community like this one. There is a lot of eye contact here, before every move, and many smiles after each achievement.
And this is not to say that there are no failures, because there are a few. These slight unbalances, collapses, imprecisions, and drops are followed by even more affection - touches, glances, smiles to reassure everyone that all is well, both bodily and socially.
Is the "C" in Le Grand C "cirque," "communauté," or "coeur"? As the piece goes on, it reveals itself as a bit of a meditation on love. The bulk of it takes place in silence, broken from time to time by instrumental interludes. Every so often, you hear a grunted call of "Un!", to ensure (I am guessing) that the whole group's count is synchronized.
About three quarters of the way through the piece, the ensemble begins a round, a rather elaborate piece of musical wordplay on the twin subjects of love and being taken along (aimer, amant, amener, emmener). Individual voices weave in and out of the whole, much as the acrobatic tricks are layered so that to look at one you are always looking away from another, and brilliant, defiant things are always happening just at the periphery of your vision.
The round dwindles to a single voice, a single man - the most charismatic of the group, another strong-man who looks rather like a bearded, burly Celtic hero and who grins like the sun. He sings sustainedly, alone, as person after person climbs up his body and onto his shoulders. His voice only begins to falter when the human tower he supports is four people high.
After eighty minutes of wordlessness, in the last minutes of the play we finally get speech. Two men direct their colleagues in a trick (urging the audience to silence, nudging the acrobats verbally - a bit forward... one arm... now a knee...). At first I thought this was because these were particularly perilous tricks, but they looked to be roughly the same as feats performed earlier in total silence. I could only conclude that this breaking into or layering on of language was important at this late stage in the play. Verbal communication as the last binding of community. Of love.
*I always find myself hyper-aware of lighting effects when I go to the theatre with D, who was a lighting designer when we met as students. He spends most performances staring up at the lighting grid, picking apart how the stage pictures are made. The first thing he noticed about the Roundhouse was the functional beauty of its theatrical space. It was originally intended for the rail service - a roundhouse is a circular building at the end of a line where trains are rotated so that they can make the return trip. It has all the height (I might have said "grandeur") to make theatre-in-the-round work. Shorter buildings create awkward angles for a lighting designer: light the stage, and you end up blinding the audience opposite.