Glastonbury Festival; 29th June 2014
Alien Forms and Raw Humanity is an aerial ballet in three distinct movements, taking us on a surprising journey to re-evaluate what it means to live freely as our most natural selves, away from gender-related expectations.
The production was the winner of Glastonbury Festival’s large scale circus commission, and has allowed long-standing duo Leo Hedman and Yam Doyev to work further with 4 recent graduates from their Gravity Circus Centre professional training course. It’s a testament to the strength of their teaching and direction that it’s impossible to tell the difference between the new performers and the regular aerialists, who bring the company total to 8.
Beginning with a stage layered in vertically hung sheets of transparent plastic, the first figures we see are dressed in sterile and sexless white morph suits. They strain against the filmy barriers, and climb, insect-like, up the vinyl drapes, reminding me of the classic ‘greys’ of extra-terrestrial mythology. The soundscape of creaking and tearing plastic that accompany their stark movements contrasts with the nonchalance of their drops, adding to the otherworldly feel.
With no rhythmic beat behind them, there is no synchronicity to the movements, even when the choreography matches. As more and more figures climb and contort around plastic ribbons, an industrial clanking of machinery rises, and the performers begin a frantic flinging of their bodies as if in pain.
Suddenly the light switches to a rosy cherry colour and a central rope lowers, revealing Alfa Marks at the top of the circus tent, coiled around herself in a flesh-coloured body suit, hair loose and face free. To the sound of chimes, a wonderful narrow focus of light illuminates the natural fibres of the rope, with shining reflections at the tops of the remaining panels of plastic. This is a new universe, and it receives a new injection of energy as Tyrone Herlihy flik-flaks in to relieve Marks’ isolation and confusion.
In a sandbox of possibilities, more playful explorers appear and watch in awe as the house riggers release more vertical ropes into the air, then encourage and fuel each other’s exploration of these new aerial bodies.
Abruptly, a telephone rings, and we are transported to an office environment, busy with big band jazz and detailed character costumes that, at first, seem far removed from the simplicity of the previous aesthetics. As we watch, however, this section recontextualises what we have already seen. Characters cross-dress, and play with traditional gender roles in the basing of their doubles rope routines; first Doyev and Hedman, then building, as in previous sections, to an ensemble display. This final section becomes the connecting thread between our common lived experience and the symbolism of what went before.
The third universe is also the one that gives us the most interesting choreography, and some creative use of the ropes as visual props. A steamy, seductive vibe develops, leading to an orgy of interchanging positions and one final twisted union. The title has taken on a new meaning for me by the end of the show, raising thoughts on how much we are bound by our physical sex to societal expectations, and how liberating an alternative acceptance would be.
The question of gender is not new to Leo & Yam‘s work and, in fact, the final section of Alien Forms and Raw Humanity was developed from previous duo performance Some Like It. Hedman’s solo work with aerial plastic was the starting point for the show’s opening, and the commission was a good opportunity to provide professional work for recent students by building a connective storyline onto previous ideas.
Rebecca Rennison, Tory McGrory, Willy Wagtail and Marks all graduated from the 12 week full-time aerial course for professional training at Gravity Circus Centre in May, and were bought in to join Will Davis, Herlihy, Hedman and Doyev for this collaboration. This is the first course of its kind that the Centre has run, and many of the students are going on to perform at the 2nd Circus Maximus competition with routines they developed through their training. Others are getting professional auditions and teaching, having become fully fledged industry members.