Circomedia, Circus City Festival, Bristol; 31st October 2015
It’s no wonder that we females may seem a little crazy at times when, as shown by the three ladies of Scandinavian company Tanter, the identity of 21st century womanhood is framed by the preceding hordes of cultural demands and expectations as well as our present needs.
The visions presented toss and turn us between course honesty and masque-like refinement, strength and grace, in a fierce explosion of contemporary femininity that refuses to be grounded in any one mode. Voices purr and screech, bodies come together in pop-video synchronicity or warp in ways of their own, objects are forced into extreme representations of themselves. The production is underlaid with high-quality circus technique, and Karoline Aamås, Elise Bjerkelund Reine and Moa Asklöf Prescott hang, fall, balance and soar between various versions of Life As Woman in physical metaphor.
Vixen is one of those shows whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. There are usually several things going on at once, and it’s their composition and layering that taps into the subconscious and brings a bigger picture to bear. Director Anika Barkan has also threaded through a deep dramaturgy that, abstract as the show may seem, allows us to focus on Aamås as a key protagonist when we need to stop ourselves getting lost in the maelstrom; at once the same as Prescott and Reine, she seems yet newly wakened into their world, trying to make sense of it or to escape it, less acceptant.
(The company website tells us that Vixen has also received the wisdom of Angela Laurier in the capacity of Outside Eye to the project, although I always find it hard to know whether to credit this ephemeral role that can mean much or nothing.)
The show begins as the three enter, faceless, with fur hats, red high heels and clutched wine-glasses. A lightly plucked music picks up power as they shake, pass out and twitch. Long blonde hair covers Aamås’ face, and continues to do so as she repeatedly climbs and drops off of a vertical rope upstage, while Prescott murmurs platitudes and smalltalk into a mic at the front of the stage, Reine rubbing herself, catlike, up against her.
Eventually an upside-down pose reveals Aamås face to us, smiling with the surprise of it; now we are surprised, as she loosely loops and knots the rope then falls into its clasp rather than hitting the mat below. This is unusually high-impact technique, and stirs up feelings in me around struggle and submission while I watch it, that feed my interpretation of what follows. But what follows also allowed me to look back and see further resonance in the routine. The more I think about this show, the more interesting it becomes.
We watch contortion and crashing whilst listening to smooth late-night radio descriptions of ancient wandering womb theories and proposed cures for the feminine ailment of hysteria that range from pregnancy to having a ‘pleasantly smelling pussy’. Aamås plants flowers around the stage while Reine, elegantly swirling her arms, dressed in a long floating skirt, slows into unexpected forms; the eye contact she makes as she bends backwards to the ground while feet remain facing the other way is piercing.
Hissing and scratching like a cat, Prescott demonstrates extreme physical control on the slackline, contrasting with an apparent loss of mental control, while Aamås recites text about becoming the ideal woman into Reine’s handheld microphone, as they walk together in mimicry of a slowdance.
Sewn icons of breasts and golden hair are draped over Aamås, turning her into a bountiful nipple goddess, bestowing favour on her worshipful handmaidens below. The bravest use of a live onion I can imagine onstage produces an uncanny blend of reality and fiction in the melodramatic cries of desperation for a lover. A diva dream is played out by Reine on a swinging trapeze, while Aamås is caught frantically juggling between trying to keep the drunk-acting Prescott upright, grasping the safety lunge for Reine’s flung tricks from the bar, and opening the back black curtains to reveal the magnificent stained glass window and church nave of the Circomedia venue. I wonder if Reine’s zealous affirmation, ‘I fly’, ever sounded more apt.
Double ended breast puppets become poi, and telephones, and strangulation devices, dancing partners, and boobs that will never quite hang equal. And the show ends. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Or, more accurately, in the midst of everything. Which is, looking back, where we began. Where we are right now.
There is a lot of material in Vixen’s hour, but it is handled with a deftness that prevents weight from settling, providing an absorbing evening that’s refreshing in its ability to get to the core feels of this mixed-up female experience.