Lafayette, Underbelly Circus Hub; 11th August 2017
It is Edinburgh Festival, so of course the tent doesn’t smell of popcorn and sawdust, but there’s still a difference in the anticipation pre-show in a big top as opposed to a theatre venue. Whilst waiting for the show to start you can gaze across the tent at the other audience members. You can look up at the rigging, trying to imagine what all those bits’n’bobs are going to be used for in the show. Or are they holding the tent up?
It’s after 9pm on a Friday, and the audience here at Underbelly’s Circus Hub to watch Circolombia‘s Aceléré is mainly white (though there are many non-English speakers around me) and mainly middle-aged. But I do see pockets of excited-looking 20-somethings, and a smattering of children. The tent is very nearly full, and there’s definitely a buzz. Expectations are high. Perhaps due to the hype around this company that has been touring worldwide for six years now.
Circus might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colombia, but the Circo Para Todos is a state-funded circus school with sites in Bogota and Cali. Circolombia, the performance company, (they also provide circus acts for cruises and theme parks) was born out of the school and, unlike many other national circus schools worldwide, Circo Para Todos is specifically aimed at the disadvantaged youth of that country.
It’s obvious from the get-go that these performers aren’t the mum&dad-bankrolled, afterschool-gymclub-attending, snowflake graduates of the English circus schools. The amount of power this troupe exude is impressive; a power that is both physical and attitudinal. And how refreshing to see such a variety of body-shapes on the stage, working it. And it is work – for this is a job, not a hobby. These young people train hard and tour extensively, and there is an urgency to their presence on the stage. It feels like if any one of these artists weren’t given the opportunity to explode into action in that tent every night, they’d be exploding in other areas of their lives.
In the age-old, traditional circus method of hyping up the audience, the show starts with a voice over – giving permission to clap, cheer, take photos (no flash of course) and generally have a good time. Which they do. Exuberantly and loudly throughout the show.
The beast of a sound system pumps the bass until our seats vibrate, and the soundtrack skilfully manipulates us physically as well as emotionally. The singers, poets and rappers work brilliantly, like MCs or ringmasters to keep the energy high or change the mood in between acts. In particular, the two female singers embody the attitude of the show – bolshy, but with a passion that feels honest – and they are integrated fully into the show, given as much significance and stage time as the physical acts, which is rare in a circus show.
The movement qualities of the troupe as a whole don’t disappoint (as long as the choreography is restricted to the comfort zones of hip-hop & street dance – any straying off this path into contemporary form made the performers look uncomfortable), and the travelling acrobatic moves are joyously athletic.
For fans of the details, let me list the acts.
- Lots of very, very high skill banquine that sets a formidable standard for the rest of the show.
- An odd aerial trio act with 3 corde lisse ropes attached to a top plate that can swivel. Neither beautiful nor well-executed, I thought this was the weakest act in the show.
- An aerial duet involving some teeth-clenching hanging (mouth to mouth hang at 10 metres, anyone?) that was also quite tender, but finished off with some very unnecessary moody face-pulling.
- A teeterboard duo with high & complicated tricks – most were executed cleanly & we forgave those that weren’t because it all looked terrifying. Sadly, this act had some peculiarly ugly fake-fighting in between the tricks, which felt superfluous (if circus performers can’t act, why force them to?).
- Following some poorly-choreographed shadow play, an unusual version of a perch act, where the flier balanced & contorted on a ring (usually a pole) that balanced on the forehead of the base. This act was full of peril, but a conversely also a little dull due to it’s pace.
- An exciting cloudswing act in which the performer was mic’d up, but speaking in Spanish and not engaging with the audience, so I have no idea what the reason for this was.
- Russian bar with 3 really impressive fliers and some tricks that looked like they were pushing their abilities to the limit. Again, any minor slip ups were entirely forgivable due to the difficulty level, and it was heart-warming to see them all in a group hug – celebrating one more day where they stared into the jaws of death and survived.
The show ends with what would, in my experience of traditional circus, be called a ‘charivari’ – all the artists are brought on for a mass dance routine with each individual given a chance to show off and receive applause. But with Circolombia there’s no cheesy pop number to clap along too, they’re way to cool for that. The bass pumps, the singers strut and the acrobats big each other up on stage.
Throughout the show, I wished I was in their gang. Like being jealous of the popular group at school, I wanted to be passionate, young and springy. Basically, I want to have as much fun in my life as they looked like they were having on that stage. There is a life-affirming joy about this group – the way they smile genuinely at each other on stage, the physical in-jokes, the honest faces revealing the fear and then the relief before and after a hard trick.
These 13 young people flung themselves dangerously around the stage for our entertainment. Their energy is infectious, so much so that the audience were on their feet before the show has truly ended, showing their appreciation with a standing ovation as well as giving in to the music and having a good old boogie. It would be interesting to see if this show works as well in a non-tented format, in the daytime and with a less powerful sound system. [See review here from their show at Pontio arts centre last month. Ed]
I saw them in the bar afterwards. I was scribbling into my notebook and they were grouped together nearby, joking with each other over a drink. Even out of costume and off the stage, they were definitely the coolest kids in the place, and I really wanted to be one of them.
This response was produced as part of the #CircusVoices scheme for developing critical languages around circus arts.