Lotto Arena, Antwerp, Belgium; 2nd March 2016
The colourful and kooky Varekai seems to be a collision of three separate dreams, fusing stella skills with confused story segments. There is a considered narrative concept behind the production, as evidenced in the press material, but much of this remains internal to the team’s own understanding of their world, and isn’t communicated outwardly to the audience.
The clowns who open the show (Steven Bishop and Emily Carragher) are modern and entertaining, and bring a surprising twist of magicianship to their acts. At first I think they are cabin crew, then janitors, then airport security… messages are blurred, and this is a trend that continues throughout the show.
The stage begins to fill with exotic life forms against the bamboo jungle set of Stéphane Roy. The set also includes a rickety looking construction that stretches from one corner, up and over the shiny thrust stage, like a treetop path, or an oriental dragon. I’m disappointed that this is never fully lit or given focus, and surprised that these elements receive a detailed write up in the programme guide about their supposed role for the forest inhabitants. Perhaps the tour venue doesn’t have the capacity for its full use, or perhaps the show has evolved and the press pack is yet to catch up (it also refers to a juggling act instead of tonight’s Cyr wheel solo from Cedric Belisle).
Costumes are tropical-bright and whimsically designed by Eiko Ishioka, and the jets of steam and piped jungle noises are supplemented with live music in a klezmer style as the band enter through the audience to join the foreign onstage world. The music, composed by Violaine Corradi, invokes different elements of world music throughout, and always retains an earthy quality of folk traditions as the musicians fade in and out of the foreground. Ritualistic vocals are provided in an unrecognised language by Craig Jennings and Isabelle Corradi. The pair are credited as The Patriarch and The Muse and appear to be the spirit-like rulers of this strange land, overseeing events as they unfold.
They unfold like this: Icarus (Fernando Miro) falls from the sky. His wings are taken from him. He is sad, but finds comfort in a bizarre yellow lizard lady (Anna Ostapenko), but is then attacked by the armies of the sun, who apparently has some unrevealed grudge against him. The lizard is kidnapped and hoisted up into a cage, then returns as a twinkling creature of light and the pair are reunited and married. The sun now celebrates with them.
Reading the programme notes after the show, it seems that maybe these flame-clad armies of the sun were supposed to be lava creatures, but either way, first they are antagonistic, later they’re not.
In between portions of this story we see creatures of the jungle-land going about their oddball business, and a pair of eighties gameshow entertainers (Bishop and Carragher) who bafflingly appear with a very funny, completely non-jungle related, audience participation disappearing act, some chanson crooning beset by the antics of mischievous followspot operators, and flirty dance moves.
What the show lacks in reason it makes up for in physical skills. Miro has an aerial net routine that conveys a tortured feel through its beauty and grace, and includes some handstand work within the net. The invading troops and aggressors are marked by their various flame coloured costumes. A Japanese tumbling quintet, choreographed with pace and precision, but whose narrative role is fueled more by the dangerous edged music than any communicative physicality; Georgian dancers Lasha Sakhokia and Levan Torchinava, whose whirling, leaping, traditional dance clearly reveals it’s origins in battle and challenge; the closing troupe of 13 on the dual Russian Swings, with a number that number includes somersaulting leaps to banquine bases, taut canvas sheets, and from one fancifully designed swing to the other in a dynamic solar flare of a finale.
There is a dance trapeze solo from Kerren McKeeman, who is like a ray of sparkling gold sunlight from her opening foot hang through swinging, spinning, and an effortless seeming back planche. When Ostapenko returns from her captivity in the sky, she too is decked in glitter for a flirtation of hand balance on canes moved across the stage.
The stand-out act for me is an aerial straps duet from Ukrainians Oleksii Kozakov and Alexander Romashyn. Corseted in black, with feathered wigs to match, they mirror each other perfectly, each on a single strap, creating a beautiful symmetry that entwines the two together then sends them sweeping apart, like a living embodiment of the heavenly Gemini twins. They move to shorter straps attached to a single hoist, and then one man performs as catcher for his partner. Just as I think it’s all over, suddenly they’re performing hand-to-hand on the straps above the stage!
Among the forest creatures, there’s a bemusing mime from Andrey Kislitsin as The Skywatcher, who may or may not be collecting sounds. Later he has a scene with his best frenemy, the endearingly grumpy miner character The Guide (Rodrigue Proteau), and while the action has some funny moments, I find it difficult to forgive the irritating, overloud squawking of their made-up language. It may be that there is some real language involved, but to my ear it sounds like each character is creating his own, as I don’t hear any tying linguistic features between the different sounds of any onstage vocalists.
There is some slick baton twirling work from Arisa Tanaka in the first half and, in the second, a novel – if slightly ungainly at times – choreography on a pair of uniquely designed crutches, performed by Raphael Botelho Nepomuceno. There is also a sequence on a special slippery floor surface by an ensemble of sea cucumbers who also count among their number some adept hand-to-hand artists. The quivering fronds of their costumes highlight every musclular shake, which is an interesting choice, but seems at odds with the easy invertebrate vibe.
There are no noticeably weak performance – and some are superb – it’s just the show as a whole that’s shakey. It’s as if the acts have been selected, then the creative team have tried to work out the most interesting way to visually present them, and then director Dominic Champagne tried to wrestle a narrative around the resulting composition. 14 years on from its initial form, the turnover of replacement acts and actors has, in all probability, led to a dilution of whatever power the original may have had. If you’re going to splash out and spend your money on a CDS show, there are others that will give you better value. If this is your first time, however, Varekai still offers plenty of opportunities to glimpse their famous magic.