I listed the Companie XY performance Le Grand C as part of CircusFest at the Roundhouse mainly because the PR asked nicely and there appeared to be some good deals on tickets. But frankly I didn’t know what to expect – there is hardly any information about this acrobatic circus company from France to be found on the internet. At least, not in a language I understand.
As the lights dimmed on the central stage the crowd went quiet in anticipation. In the shadows a group of people climbed up each other and then descended. It stayed quiet. And dark. So quiet that I could hear myself sucking loudly on the lemon sherbet I’d picked up from a stand at the London Book Fair earlier. Characters climbed on top of an upright log for no particular reason.
Let’s be honest here, for the first ten minutes of this performance I was seriously contemplating how I could make a hasty exit without being heard. But then things radically improved; with the addition of music and lighting came life, and verve. Companie XY may only do one thing – climbing on each other’s shoulders in various gravity defying combinations – but they do it very well. The acrobats swirled around and on top of each other, swinging up into handstands, standing on heads, soaring skywards from a see-saw to land gently in the waiting arms of their comrades. It was gasp-inducing stuff and the audience were not shy with their applause.
On multiple occasions the anticipated stunt failed and the performers came tumbling down to the floor, yet it was almost as if this was to be expected – a morass of acrobats gathered, arms outstretched beneath the four tall human skyscrapers, suggesting that a fall was not an uncommon occurrence. Somehow these mistakes didn’t detract from the performance, instead making the hardest successful stunts seem all the more impressive. We were rooting for these acrobats. A failed move was just the price one pays for attempting something so insane, and it merely served to highlight the extraordinary feats they were performing.
What didn’t work so well was the confluence of comic interludes and contemporary dance: the hugely influential German choreographer Pina Bausch has a lot to answer for. I went to see the Australian Circa troupe at the Barbican last month, and they too revel in circus with a touch of both comedy and modern dance. Why do circus acts try to be the best of all worlds when what they are naturally best at is combining bizarre contortions with the lightness of humour? Whenever I have seen them dance they appear weighty, their bodies dragging downwards rather than soaring to acrobatic heights.
Towards the end the entirety of Companie XY burst into a French song – an extraordinary event and one which I can’t imagine from an English company. Harmonies died down to the lone voice of the one man left on stage, who continued singing as he formed the base of the last human tower, his voice wobbling as each extra person clambered upon him. The performers were clearly tired by now and the tension in the Roundhouse was palpable. Would everything come crashing down just as we reached the finale? No, our singer remained steady, gasping his final note as the tower was completed.
If you can get past the first ten minutes then this performance is the most adrenalin filled way you can spend an hour sitting down. It may veer wildy between the dull and the sublime but it is a must see for those intrigued by the astonishing things that *some* human bodies can do. And a note to Companie XY: less silence and pretentious dance, more music and light comedy.
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