Sadlers Wells Theatre, London; 1st April 2016
The new triple bill of work directed by Samuel Tétreault, one of the eponymous co-founders of 7 Fingers (7 Doigts…), is a programme of collaborations with three world-class dance choreographers, and incorporates performers from both the dance and circus worlds. It’s the first time the company has used outside choreographers, and I am always pleased to see examples of circus work that recognise the fact other artists have spent as many hours dedicated to their various practices of dance or theatre as acrobats must to their own technique. The collaborative process usually creates a much stronger whole than attempts of new circus artists to take on these roles themselves from a naive understanding.
During rehearsals, Tétreault found himself surprised by the way dance perspectives changed the way the company looked at familiar circus equipment, such the as ropes and handbalance poles used in Triptyque, and how these approaches opened up new realms of choreographic research.
The three pieces slide from a stronger dance influence in Anne & Samuel (choreographed by Marie Chouinard) to a more familiar 7 Fingers style of circus in Nocturnes (choreographed by Marcos Morau with Tétreault and fellow 7 Fingers co-founder Isabelle Chassé). Between them sits Variations 9.81, which incorporates hand-balance with the breakdance influenced choreography of Victor Quijada. A fourth segment, which takes place in front of the scene-change curtain between the first two pieces, is a mini-duet inspired by the traditional ring clowns who cover circus rigging transitions. It also provides a neat character connection into the final piece after the interval.
Anne & Samuel begins with Anne Plamondon suspended centre stage from a Kinbaku bar, and the sexual connotations suggested by the Japanese bondage technique heighten into the most erotic performance I have ever seen on stage. Tétreault enters the ring of crumpled paper that marks the circle of their ritual, forelimbs extended by short crutches that allow for a loping movement contrasting with Plamondon’s containment in her sling of knotted cords. He releases her from her constraints, and she too is armed with a pair of tailored crutches. In a tantric awakening where each appears to nurture their partner’s independence, crotch to crotch waves of movement propel the pair across the stage. The sharp choreography utilises all the angles that can be created from ankles, knees, hips, wrists, fingers, elbows, tongue, neck, jaw… With weight balanced and pivoting from the shoulders as well as the legs, many body parts seem open to a new level of freedom. The sequence ends with a spinning sexual yab-yum position as their ecstasy spirals together.
While the stage is reset, a brief interlude from whitefaced Alvaro Fitinho and Kyra Jean Green releases the tensions built from the previous act. To a whistling soundtrack, janitors pass their mop to and fro, movements inspired by classical mime. There is lightness in the transformations, although the logic stems from a choreographic development rather than a cerebral one: this is dance based on clowns, not clowns dancing.
The curtains rise again for Variations 9.81, whose title stems from the force gravity exerts on a falling human body. Inverted human forms stand upon various heights of balance cane. As the piano pulse is reinforced by rhythmic cymbal, then a melodic riff, the legs begin swaying like reeds. The pattern of various heights in balance canes is continuously rearranged by the performers, creating an evolving landscape. An atmosphere of primal fears – jungle noises and night – moves into urban contemporaneity, and the union of the ensemble disintegrates into individualism and discord. Although this is an artistic rendering – a harmonious discord – rather than the real thing.
Playing with synchronicity and canon in the movements of the acrobats, the piece also works with Morau’s rubberband technique, creating invisible barriers for the dancers to seemingly bounce off of in combination with the real objects in space. I am particularly mesmerised by the exactly timed matching leg waves of Marie-Ève Dicaire and Alexandra Mizzen, and the body rolls Mizzen then produces in handstand position. Matthew Pasquet performs cycling movements while balancing on one hand. There is little narrative content, but an interesting character study emerges at one point, with Dicaire performing a limp-leggedness in standing that transforms when she is inverted and held by the strength of her arms, legs still flopping and loose. The quintet is completed with Franklyn Luy and Nicolas Montes de Oca.
After the interval, Nocturnes sets us up in a hospital room, with orderlies from the janitor-style skit of the first half. Plamondon is on the bed, which will later be raised into the air as her world takes a surreal turn, evoking the nightmare of extreme mental stress. Armies of fish-headed orderlies replace the hospital staff; multiples selves – or fractions of selves – are absorbed into the furniture; the flash of a paparazzo’s camera intrudes and obscures our vision; Fitinho becomes a unicycling bellhop haunted by his own mysterious trauma which projects him into a medical hospital where Plamondon becomes nurse.
Recognisable musical themes are interspersed with Nans Bortuzzo‘s original compositions (Louis Dufort composed for Anne & Samuel, Jasper Gahunia for Variations 9.81), as well as snippets of spoken and pre-recorded text. Sounds of adverts and infomercials appear to come from a television that, at the last, lectures on the vitality of the imagination as a tool to survive reality.
This final piece utilises aerial rope work that moves from traditional climbs and holds into a maypole that see performers twisting three ropes together. This creates a structure from which Luy forms a unique cradle to swing Dicaire from, and which she is then able to use for a brief slackline walk. A curling, spinning straps duet is built out of an intricate, intertwining floor choreography from Plamondon and Green. The pair share a similar movement style and vocabulary, seemingly suggesting interwoven facets of one complex personality.
As the drama of the music increases with an intense strings section, aerial harnesses drop and a cacophony of disconnected activity makes me think of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat gleefully declaring ‘We’re all mad here’.
A crystal globe becomes a symbol of returning clarity in a contact juggling sequence from de Oca, balls increasing in number until we are returned back to the bedroom, and a crystal snowglobe, and a figurine from a musical box. Whilst there is little psychological progression to the narrative once the nightmare state is entered, the dreamlike confusion produced is easily read.
The inspiration behind all of the pieces is ‘gravity’, a theme loose enough to have allowed each to form in a unique direction. The programme as a whole is given cohesion through visual cross-referencing – low level lighting, which graduates from warm amber to clinical blue; the arm lengths physically extended by crutches, hand-balance canes, or human support; performers’ contact manipulations of their own and each other’s bodies; the aerial harnesses towards the end echoing the kinbaku sling from the beginning; the costumes which remain true to a single colour scheme in each piece – again moving from warm and natural shades in Anne & Samuel to the cool white of Nocturnes.
Whilst none of these compositions are likely to go down in history as a masterwork, the evening is a satisfying and intriguing one. The evolution of circus potential witnessed is, in itself, significant of the sector’s current exploratory era, and I look forward to seeing further high-level cross-discipline collaborations of this sort.