Top regional dance centre The Point, in Eastleigh, has a strong record of programming circus work (and providing developmental support). This year they’ve taken it into the streets for the second time, with Eastleigh Unwrapped 2014, a one-day festival of free visual performance for public spaces.
Top of the bill is Square Peg Circus’ Rime, whose high rig commands attention in the centre of the park. The weather is on their side today, and the gathered crowds are happy to sit and sun themselves on the grass for an hour to take in the poetic performance. Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, the company use lines from his famous verse, as well as original text, to tell parts of his story, parts of their own, and parts of ours. Just as Coleridge’s lyrical ambiguity has kept scholars delving for layers of symbolism for over 200 years, the various threads that weave through Square Peg’s adaptation also provide space for contemplation and personal resonance.
The production is touring to both indoor and outdoor venues this year and, though the ensemble acrobatic scenes are filled with the detail, humour and energy that hold attention in public spaces, the solo choreographies often demand more concentration than an open-air family audience is willing to give. The wind flapping through the sails does lend a beautiful sense of place, however, and the skills of the artists are unquestionable, away from the sprung floors and smooth surfaces of a theatre space.
I may not be clear of the narrative links between Hege Eriksdätter’s corde lisse routine and the shamed Mariner who shot the albatross of hope, but I can appreciate the spectacle; I might be fuzzy on where Isabelle Schuster‘s silks fit into the overall concept, but I can enjoy the creative wraps and shapes she creates, the surprising shifts in dynamic as she moves, and the way she flips from one side of the hanging fabric to the other supported just by her ankles. At times though, the circus elements are clearly integrated within the core storytelling – acrobatic lifts and balances as sailors prepare their ship for sea, or Antonio Harris’ slow dance of starvation up and down the two Chinese poles, performed aloft with a falling energy and drooping body to the sounds of rain and dub beats – and these, for me, are the strongest parts of the work.
The original soundtrack, designed by Artistic Director Tim Lenkiewicz, is fitted perfectly to the onstage action down to the final echoing bars, and evolves seamlessly from the traditional sea-shanties and folk songs played out of the overhead speakers pre-show. Their gorgeous harmonies and dark undertones are reflected later in the acapella singing of Rosamond Martin, as she balances across a pole above the heads of the ship’s crew; underlying all the music, is a subtle soundscape of waves, seabirds, and the jangling masts of harbour boats, which keeps us rooted in a sea-going space, and which builds at times to create the drama of storms or shipwrecks.
Later in the day, as I queue for Talking Birds‘ delightful encounter with The Whale, I find myself chatting with an 8-year old boy and his younger brother. As far as they were concerned, Rime ‘didn’t make sense’, but ‘the pirate ship’ was cool, and the acrobats were ‘very good’ (with a special mention for Harris’ head-first drop down the pole – always a crowd pleaser!). While the engaging introductory speech from Tomos James suggests a more conventional story-telling than we’re met with, Rime’s theatrical montage of extreme experiences and elemental forces echoes the mystic nature of Coleridge’s poem, giving us moments of love, despair, hunger and death to contemplate – alongside the feats of physical mastery.
The beauty of Eastleigh Unwrapped is that it’s about far more than sit-down-and-watch performances. There are walk-about street artists roaming the town, engaging shoppers, storekeepers and festival visitors alike, and there are free workshops in aerial hoop and origami of all things. Combining workshop and street-theatre is the inspired Drawabout, who I spot under a tree with a rapt following of new artists of all ages. As well as the usual categories of ‘Theatre’, ‘Dance’ or ‘Circus’, the day’s programme also includes a ‘Get Involved’ tag, for interactive events like Bryony Kimmings‘ audio-tour experience Mega, or the living playset of Handmade Theatre‘s The Flying Machine.
Local talent is well represented – with dance and street performance from regional youth and community organisations, and musicians from the surrounding area – and Eastleigh Unwrapped is also supported by the Interegg cross-border project RECREATE to boost creative relationships between England and France.
From across the sea comes Penelope Parrau to dance in the streets, and I catch Cirq’O Vent with Lomalamal. Their public showcase of diabolo, clowning and hand-to-hand is not listed on the company website, and I wonder whether the piece has been specially commissioned for this festival. It has the dramaturgical structure of segmented skills sections and very loose narrative flow that can capture the attention of passers-by for a hatted performance, but leaves me unsatisfied sitting through from beginning to end. The stand-out skills for me were the double-diabolo (despite several drops), as I’ve never seen it performed before, and I also enjoy the female acrobat’s mischievous energy. The antagonistic relationship between the two artists (sorry, couldn’t find names) is like that of schoolyard chums, keeping us on-side with each whilst providing a simple vehicle for dramatic tension.
My favourite performance of the day is, without doubt, Acrojou‘s The Wheel House. The company was founded in 2006 by Jeni Barnard and Barney White, and their shows transform the basic equipment of a German wheel into dynamic stage sets that can take to the streets. Earlier in the day I saw their production Frantic, which sees White as a frustrated worker, and the wheel, with its shuttered blinds, as the confines of convention and routine. The release provided by Myrto Petrochilou and the growing sense of playfulness and joy is beautiful to watch. It may have brought a tear to my eye, but The Wheel House had them running down my cheeks with its tender post-apocalyptic love-story.
The details of the intricately adorned wheel and costumes are like something straight out of a Tim Burton movie and, as the circular dwelling appears in the street before either of the performers (Michael Rawstrone and Barnard), we are able to approach and take a closer look at the curtained window, tiny driftwood door, and faded picture postcards that mask the integral German wheel structure beneath. The show, born in 2008 and commissioned as a full piece in 2011, is now the company’s flagship performance gaining them international recognition. As touching as it is ingenious, as thought-provoking as it is visually intriguing, it’s easy to forget the level of technical skill also involved in the propulsion of The Wheel House through the streets (the carefully laced tyre-tress around the rim are more than merely aesthetic). Placement of feet and hands must be precise to avoid knocking the internal bed or writing desk, and both performers are fully aware of each other’s positioning at all times, while appearing fully absorbed in other activity. With their own hidden sound system that sets us by the sea, and warns the inhabitants of oncoming danger, Acrojou remind us to appreciate simple treasures, and entertain us with uncommonly elegant slapstick.
Also performing over the course of the day were hula-burlesquer Storm Hooper (aka Chloe Lloyd), and ZoieLogic Dance Theatre, who presented the premiere of Stolen Wishes, co-commissioned by The Point and The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton… Next year, if their programme is as strong again, I’m petitioning for a whole weekend so we can get round everything!