Roundhouse, London; 20th April 2017
The first time I saw Cie XY in their latest show, It’s Not Yet Midnight (or, as it was then, titled in its original French, Il N’est Pas Encore Minuit), I knew nothing of what to expect, except that there would be some hand-to-hand involved. I managed to count the 22 acrobats onstage, but lost track of how many three-high towers they built, and was awe-struck by the four-high.
Nearly a year and a half later, as they appear at the Roundhouse, I decide to keep tabs more closely while the stage slowly fills with brawling bodies. Dressed in hipster vintage greys and camels, braces, beards, pleated skirts and blouses, the company are both timeless and timely. A small scuffle becomes an orgiastic war zone, bursting into fountains of flyers launched across the melée.
ONE: The first three-high arrives from a teeterboard somersault to top the stack.
A snaking parade of acrobats, each stood on the shoulders of a partner below, makes its way formally around the stage. Every so often they catch our eye, then form a circle that reminds me of traditional folk-dancing at a wedding celebration, the top ring stepping around the shoulders of the ring beneath, then breaking out into the smiling swing dance that will recur throughout the show.
TWO: We are teased into the suggestion of a four-high shoulder-stand when a flyer is pitched to land in a back-balance across the top of an already three-tall tower.
Usually I am keen to name and credit individual performers. Here though, in spirit and form, the collective seems all-powerful. Singling out solo mentions feels inappropriate as well as near impossible. Creation of the show is ascribed to the entire company, with four additional artistic collaborators, an acrobatic collaborator, and two lindy hop dancers. Between them, they have an amusing sense of the physical contrasts between differently aged, shaped and sized members of the performing team, with little visual jokes popping into the choreography every now and then. The fight energy becomes channelled into creative rather than aggressive endeavor.
THREE: One girl is flipped from a banquine launchpad to land in a handstand as the third person in a column.
FOUR: Another cartwheels into the same position.
The fight still lurks beneath the surface, ready to bubble over and destroy the troupe’s careful civilisation and citadels. Violins in the soundtrack sadden the guitar while continual movement enlivens the stage and the air. You cannot see it all, but you sense it, wherever your gaze is focused.
FIVE: Another flying acrobat somersaults over a two-tall giant to land on top of the one mirrored behind.
The stage returns to empty and gradually repopulates again with not just people, but an increasing number of square boards rimmed with hand-hold holes. One man plays to our sense of the underdog before joining his challenger with a head-to-head balance on top of a platform raised and turned by their fellows. Angled, the boards become parkour points, dragged slowly back and forth, suddenly revealing or hiding the still exchanging acrobats.
SIX & SEVEN: Two standard three-high towers. One walks backwards around the stage.
EIGHT: From the teeterboard, someone flies into a backwards-facing handstand on top of two stacked ensemble members.
As I begin to wonder if this section has outstayed its welcome, the men leave the stage and the six women who now inhabit it press together until giggles take over and burst forth. One places herself beneath another, rising into a stand with her friend upon her shoulders. As the men return, they support and assist the growing tower as it rises to a FOUR-HIGH female stack (a beautiful metaphor for effective feminism, if you wish to read it as such).
Teasing piano and percussion accompany a building choreography of group steps while NINE & TEN: Two more three-highs rise and subside, one with the top pair balancing head-to-head.
Pawing like bulls, two groups face each other and the giggles return, spreading from the central figure of a man and adding a surreal edge.
ELEVEN, TWELVE, THIRTEEN, FOURTEEN: Guess the height difference when the girls face off against the boys!
FIFTEEN: The three fall forward as one into a welcoming crowd of arms then, almost unbelievably, raise back up to vertical before falling again behind.
SIXTEEN, SEVENTEEN, EIGHTEEN: The top balancer on each of these holds their own weight on either one leg, two hands, or a single hand.
As lighting and vibrating chords darken to a minor key, the laughter seems sadder. Figures lie prone on the floor, and a path formed by raised hands carries one traveller slowly forward, bodies rolling gently in and out of her living conveyer belt.
Lit only along the edges, two more figures climb glacially to create NINETEEN: Another shadowy three-high. There is warmth though, and comfort, in this twilight pace.
Gradually, the toe-tapping party starts swinging again, audience – undirected – clapping along with the celebratory atmosphere, as a wedding cake of bodies and boards reaches slowly skywards. Then, like over-tired children after an exuberant birthday feast of too much sugar, too much fun, and too much love, their steps fail, a fractious nature threatening to return.
Instead, all are embraced.
A note read aloud at the end of the performance justifying Company XY’s collaborative ethos is touching in these turbulent times and, perhaps to those who still expect sparkling solos and glittering gimmicks from their circus experience, may help clarify the nature of the extraordinary performance we have just watched. For me though, the words aren’t necessary. It’s Not Yet Midnight shows us how fragile our balance in society is, how hard we must work to rise out of the individualist struggle, and what is possible when we build together. Sounds cloying as words on a page. In action, far more powerful.