This response was produced as part of the #CircusVoices scheme for developing critical languages around circus arts.
Beauty, Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 6th August 2016
Joli Vyann draw from both circus and dance vocabularies to create an indicative style that is neither one nor the other, but a nuanced hybrid of contemporary dance and acrobalance. Their body of work, whilst varied in subject matter and form, maintains this fused stylistic identity that sets them apart from other circus-based productions at the festival. Imbalance, developed with choreographer Jonathan Lunn, is a duet based on the equilibrium between social and technological relationships, and comments on the destructive but essential role that computers and smart phones play in society. This is a tired theme but, unfortunately, is still a pressing concern in everyday life and the work bravely places the viewer in a position of contemplation and reflection under a big top tent so often used for silliness and spectacle.
The work is divided by sections of stillness and inward focus, which centre on a phone or a laptop, and wonderfully dynamic movement phrases. There is a jarring tension between these two styles that mirrors the disconnect between interaction with life and with technology. It makes the work, particularly the first half, overly stop-start, with perhaps an overuse of stillness where the movement phrases are cut short. Although frustrating for a viewer who, once they understand the messages, is eager for their embodiment in movement, this successfully reflects the frustration and sense of being held back that surround the theme.
A chiaroscuro portrait of the dancers, created by glowing laptops, recalls spiritual themes that are picked up in the chanting music – and, later, in the acrobalances. Jan Patzke carries Olivia Quayle on his back like Jesus carrying the cross. Later, he carries her above his head in a handstand that creates a monumental crucifix evoking notions sacrifice and ritual.
The work becomes more interesting during the chopping and changing selfie photo duet and the fluid partner work where each performer is focused on their tablet rather than each other. This multi-tasking clearly reflects contemporary behaviours as the pair develop a 6th sense for each other’s presence, supporting and trusting in turn, their weight and momentum indicative of development from contact improvisation. The strange mixture of tenderness and dislocation that is indefinable in relationships exudes from phrases like this. The speedy, repetitive tabletop turn of moving objects and answering phones, in fast changing complimentary tableaux, conveys the destruction of social settings by this technology. There are glimmers of a tango table trio, where the couple carry a table between them like a great weight that both connects and separates them. Their footwork is tantalisingly drawn from social dance and has the potential to fill the piece with more content here.
Joli Vyann have taken their circus and dance fusion and sewn everyday social behaviours and gestures into their choreography, which gives a fair representation of the theme. Their imaginative embellishments, however, take the work further. There is a strutting, bird-like section with wiggling elbows and tiny tiptoe running. This recalls an exotic bird’s courtship ritual with accented dynamics that bring to mind the sensitive touch on a keyboard, of tapping touch-screens, and minimising attention spans to focus on fast moving excerpts of information. Phrases like this one – and moments where Patzke is supported by Quayle or slapping his foot in an outward round kick, displaying defensive and argumentative behaviours – are unusual and pique interest throughout the flow of their smooth, expansive dance vocabulary. These moments deserve more time and exploration over the returns to stillness that break up the work and detract from the evocative choreography.
The strength and risk that comes out of the performers’ circus background come to the fore in sections where Quayle not only stands on Patzke’s head but develepés and tilts. This produces applause from the public and most expert audience of circus companies alike. At points, Patzke hold’s Quayle horizontally across his hips and scoops her round and round like a bundle of tiny woman in a concrete mixer, or spirals her around his neck and shoulders like a human baton, so fast that she is about to take off. These vocabularies relate to the sense of a fast moving world where, when devices are a constant disruption to everyday life, emotions become un-channelled and muddy human perspectives. These imaginative and unusual phrases warrant developing as motifs as they have the potential to unpack the theme more thoroughly.
Leaving Imbalance, I feel that I have slowed down, calmed down and left the pace of the festival during that hour. I feel uncertain as I take out my tablet in the bar to start writing, glancing at my phone sporadically, alone within the hustle of the Circus Hub. The sense of being in the moment, of untethered thoughts, emotions and human ties lingers, sticks and prods at my mind all evening. Joli Vyann expose something different within a theme that could easily have fallen flat. Imbalance is a work that is mature in style and sensitive in execution.