Cardiff; 23rd June 2015
Amongst the iconic images and immersive splendour that wait inside NoFit State‘s silver space-age big top, there is a more grown up undertone to this year’s spectacular production.
In this third incarnation of Bianco, director Firenza Guidi takes her guiding impulses of fighting fear and finding freedom into more serious territories. With text and character originating from company members during the long period of creative rehearsal, perhaps they are a more political group this year (less than half of the performing company were members of the previous season’s team); perhaps I am feeling more political dissent that I project onto the ever-changing tableaux of physical grace and exertion they present.
Fans will recognise a consistency in dramaturgical structure that leads us through chaos, exuberance, tenderness, and soul-searching to a place of serenity and release. First-timers will experience a thrilling encounter with circus acts that appear from every which way, as they are herded out of danger’s path by the team of ushers in trademark leather kilts.
From a central enclosure of white scaffolding towers, gauze curtains and shifting light and shadow, comes an expansion and untethering as the parallel universe of the performers begins to overlap with our own. The live band has an eclectic sound, filling our ears with rocky jazz, interspersed with tribal beats and moans, and some traditional Eastern European influences thrown in for good circus measure. While rigging changes take place around and about us, it is musical director David Murray’s fascinating and atmospheric compositions that prevent the energy in the tent from falling flat.
Rhiannon Matthews’ black and white costuming leads us through time and place, but what remains consistent throughout the show is a feeling of heat, of tensions that bubble to the surface and then melt away to lethargic slumber.
Victoriana influences of classical circus stripes and waistcoats greet us in Lyndall Merry and Anne-Fay Audet Johnston’s tandem swinging trapeze, where the two bars are kept moving in time with each other, but rebelliously spirited tricks are flung asynchronously.
Juggler Cecilia Zucchetti is a rock’n’roll party girl in 1950’s style gingham, with a fun and tipsy club engineering routine that is refreshing in its femininity (if a little more droppy than the drunken character can fully compensate for this evening).
The slow and subtle performance of the riggers as they go about their essential resetting reveals a row of five aerialists in contemporary white tops and black trousers or shorts, who are raised up from the floor by their feet, slowly unfurling, then floating on their ropes, or attacked by whirlwind frenzy, bodies like breath.
Traditional categories of ‘performer’ and ‘rigger’ are blurred into non-existence in Bianco. Tool belts, boiler suits and formal evening wear are distributed indiscriminately as the entire company endeavour to clang and clip their moving scaffold towers into an urban construction for parkour and daring playground acrobatics. Echoes of the circus troupe’s reality, working together to construct their tent and camp at each new stand, are not lost on me.
Fred Rendell’s’s counterweighting to Angelique Ross’ dance trapeze is foregrounded by moments of more direct contact, as she swings into and out of his arms, fighting the physics that try to separate them. To gentle piano and a sung ballad, the two create their own touchingly intimate world of romance, oblivious to the double tightwire rig being build underneath and between them.
Dressed in a manner reminiscent of revolutionary Cuba, François Bouvier gives a stand-out performance on the crossed wires, combining the traditional circus disciplines of rope-dancing with the clown’s eccentric dance to create an entertaining routine that engages with the whole audience, charming us with a smile and a wink, then surprising us with a pristine back-flip or back somersault.
Whilst most of the action does roughly retain a central ring, a blue lit path now separates the audience onto two sides of the tent to make way for Rendell‘s Cyr, revisiting last year’s number. The size and weight of his steel wheel are emphasised in contrast to the four girls rising and falling on aerial hoops around him.
The gentle end to the first half is Danilo Pacheco, performing on frayed grey silks that flow like his long tailcoat, open to reveal the bare chest beneath. With a sinuous continuity of movement, this is a fine example of male elegance and, when the coat is shed (as several coats – and other superfluous items of clothing – are in this production), it is in the pursuit of freedom, rather than from any sexual intent.
After the interval, the company let loose in comedy swim hats and goggles for a trampoline pool party. Despite the vintage bathing costumes, the vibrancy, interaction and humour in this act place us firmly in the here and now of our world. I wonder if the thematic drive for release contains another echo of these young circus artists’ drive to move away from clichéd preconceptions of circus past.
The poster image Alice-in-Wonderland growing dress is inhabited by Delia Ceruti, who is then left tiny and delicate atop her single rope to work a routine of strength and vulnerability. Two further ropes are dropped in alongside, and these are used much more fully than I saw last year, becoming especially interesting as Joachim Aussibal drops in to the frame, illuminating the complications of human connection.
Jani Foldi’s triple cloudswing begins with an insistent speech in, presumably, his native Hungarian. I don’t understand the words, but I hear a call-to-arms, a rallying. Others try to reach his perch, but are unsuccessful, so he returns. He is suited, a leader, a fighter, with impassioned address over his radio mic. As he loops and turns among his three loops of rope, he creates an intricate looking crochet above us and, as his voice drops in pitch, it is overtaken by the choral singing of the company looking on. There is a religious tone in the voices and, as Foldi pushes himself harder and harder upon the swing, to dive, to dive again, I wonder, ‘Is he berating us? Should we have been, somehow, better.’ His final leap from the swinging rope makes me flinch, forgetting for a moment the safety belt I knew he wore.
Johnston reprises last year’s kitchen sink hand-balance act, but I miss the charming french chatter of last time round. This production has seen a streamlining of text use, but here I feel its done the number a disservice. A disco – complete with nightclub dancer Louis Blair on aerial straps, counterweighted by Jess O’Connor – forms under the platform below Johnston’s feet, and she descends to join the party walking on her hands.
Rock guitars rise and audiences are shunted around to allow two of the towers to be tipped to horizontal, energy building to meet the sudden serenity of delicate beaded curtains swirling in the air above our heads, housing aerial dancers who spin to the sounds of close acapella harmonies. This is one of those classic NoFit State moments of pure beauty that steals my breath and sneaks tears from my eyes. The company are masters of mood enhancement through the dynamics of their sound and lighting.
A doubles dance trapeze routine blends a tender mix of comfort and distance, with some strong and surprising moves from the petite Ceruti and gentle Guillaume Blais, who has played with awkward geekiness throughout most of the show.
A new image of steely ritual and order is played over the two fluid trapeze artists, accompanied by the powerful lyric, ‘Every day I pray to myself that I’ll live tomorrow without fear’; dressed in mourning suits and trailing veils of black, rows of solemn performers are raised within frames of stark neon tubing.
Like all the others, this image dissipates, switching mood again with the male performers hula-hooping above our heads in an amused display of camaraderie and mild playful challenge. Singer and musician Andy Moore takes to the mic to tell us, ‘There are more people in me than just me’, and Blaze Cummings is wafted up and down in front of us as she works her unusual rotative hoop, counterweighted by Merry.
If Cummings has ‘a thing’, it is certainly spinning. Looking nothing less than serene, she whirls and turns in the air, her hair braids splayed around in an inverse of the glistening silver curtains we have already seen; and on this piece of kit, which seems to have gained its freedom as much as the artists have been reaching for theirs, she is able to change orientation and perspective, turning about both the vertical and horizontal planes.
Drifts of summer snow pour from the top of the tent, and Cummings is half-obscured, relentlessly spinning and turning. As she joins the rest of the formally attired cast on the raised gantry for their bows, the audience find themselves in the centre of the space, heads tipped up to receive the gift of unexpected beauty that, in itself, sums up what NoFit State provide in their tent.
No circus will ever be the same after you’ve been a part of Bianco.