Chris ‘Zeke’ Hand’s incredibly verbose and strangely compelling review of S By C!RCA.
My name is Zeke and sometimes, some people think I can be funky. On Tuesday I was invited to see the North American premiere of S by an Australian Circus company called C!RCA, all in capital letters with an exclamation point replacing the I (yes, I am with you in thinking that the use of punctuation marks in names, like with Toque! And Brasserie T! is obnoxious and very 90s. In fact I think the only person who should be able to get away with it these days is Prince, and that is only because he has been doing it since the 80s, but I digress). As long as I am whining I also am not fond of using a single letter as the title of a show. It makes finding information about the show exceedingly difficult. But as per normal, no one asked me.
It was part of the Montréal Complètement Cirque festival and was held at the Theatre du Nouveau Monde, which is a very nice venue, but I don’t think I have ever seen anything circus-like performed there before. As circus venues go, it wasn’t bad. I’m used to places where you can see all the way up to the top of the seventy-five thousand foot ceiling. You can’t do that at Theatre du Nouveau Monde, but on the flip side it lends a certain intimacy to the proceedings and in the case of S by C!RCA was entirely appropriate.
There was only one time when I wasn’t able to see something because of the site lines (we were all the way on the side). But the more significant thing is because the seats only have a gentle rake they guys who sat in front of us (one with a baseball cap and the other with a very flamboyant pompadour) were cause for concern. Thankfully Mr. Pompadour came with a very short friend and was gracious enough to switch seats with her so that we were able to watch the performance through a crenelation in the crowd. It added to the intimacy.
According to the technical rider supplied by C!RCA the “performing area must be an 8m x 8m diamond shaped rostra 200mm high. The stage must be stable, level and suitable for acrobatic impact. The stage surface should be black. And the stage should be swept and mopped prior to Circa’s arrival.” Or if you prefer in less technical jargon there was a square raised stage (about 8 inches) on top of the regular Theatre du Nouveau Monde stage. It was white and rotated 45 degrees so that one of the corners was aimed at the audience.
As we arrived it was bathed in a blue light with some mist from a smoke machine on low to give those who did not want to read the program in advance (such as myself) something slightly more than a bare stage to look at. And while it did impose what you could call “atmosphere” to the event in retrospect it had absolutely nothing to do with the show in any way shape or form.
As the show itself began and finished with a single incandescent light bulb on a wire and had what are called “tissue” in the rider, but I called “drapes” in my notes, I’d be so bold as to suggest that they use that instead. At least it would give some sense of being connected to the show as opposed to being completely disconnected.
Once the show starts in proper there is the light bulb, a blonde woman and some loud heavy breathing. She first starts doing what I called yoga poses that veer very close to contortion all done in time to the breathing. I would adore it if in the program (or press kit if they ever gave one out) that they published pictures of the performers. So that I could figure out who did what. As it stands I think it was Kimberley Rossi as the picture on C!RCA’s website seems to be what I remember. And while I’m at it I should also mention the rest of the cast, Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Robbie Curtis, Casey Douglas, Brittannie Portelli, Duncan West. For what it is worth, Mr. West was a fireman before becoming an acrobat and Ms. Rossi played junior football prior to joining the circus. Interesting career paths.
Ms. Rossi and all the other women in the cast are dressed in semi-sheer leotards, with black bands around their ankles and wrists. Most of the men are dressed in black workout pants. One, I don’t remember who, had his chopped at the calf for a more fashionable look. They don’t have any bands on any of their appendages.
Some guy then comes on stage and we are shown the foundation of pretty much everything else that will follow, the two of them combine in some kind of hand-to-hand acrobatics that looked more to me like she was using him as a pommel horse. You know one of those leather covered things with two handles that you only see if you’re in high school or watching the Olympics which the gymnasts spin themselves rapidly around and over?
No they didn’t do that all night, but if Face Nord was an inquiry into what could be done with hand-to-hand acrobatics in the 21st century, S is kind of like the culmination of everything that was done in late 20th century hand-to-hand acrobatics. Yes there is other stuff and while I haven’t seen every hand-to-hand act that ever existed, I came away with the sensation that these guys were very very good at what they did, but there weren’t any real envelopes being pushed.
Over the course of the evening they combined themselves in pretty much every combination possible from individually to up to and including all seven of them together and do all sorts of balancing on each other, crawling around each other, walking on top of each other, rocking each other, throwing each other and spinning each other.
In looking up things about the show, I found it interesting to discover that the previous incarnation of the show had four women and three guys, where as the one I saw had four guys and three women. I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly would have changed. Sadly I will go to my grave never knowing. Pity.
Some of the high points of the various stunts were the double woman hand-to-hand (as you don’t really think of an underman as an underwoman) the three person high balancing that they did. And what I think was Ms. Portelli getting thrown further and further distances across the stage.
I don’t know if I would single out any one performer as being better than any others, since to my eye, they all were pretty gosh darn good at doing things that I only wish I was able to do when I was much much younger.
Some of the low points would be what struck me as the built in misogyny. It was nice to see women being underwomen (for lack of a better term) but there were two specific points when it seemed as if the men were walking on the women giving the impression that they wanted to hurt them. Using your hand to pull a woman up by her mouth leaves a bad taste in mine. And the whole woman as sack of potatoes routine before the tissue act was in bad taste. I also kind of felt that the lead ins, the introductions, the preludes, transitions, whatever you want to call them, the stuff before the actual gymnastics, acrobatics or stunts was kind of slow and as a consequence made the show drag.
Where the first part of the show was kind of seamless, each successive feat flowing (albeit slowly) into the next. The second part definitely had major divisions. There’s a hoops act done for the most part by (I think) Jessica Connell, as hooping is mentioned in the photographless two sentence bio of her in the program and is not mentioned for any other performer. It was not as tight as the rest of the show as it was one of only two times where there were visible mistakes. There was the tissue act or if you excuse my notation, the drapes act.
I’ve heard that Howlin’ Wolf would climb the drapes when he performed in the 1950s and 60s. And I am particularly fond of the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera where they use 1930s special effects in order to make Harpo climb the drapes. Sadly I never saw Howlin’ Wolf perform, but my guess is that he would have done a better job than S by C!RCA. Which do you think would be better singing Backdoor Man from the top of a proscenium arch vs swaying gracefully to contemporary notated Finnish music that less than a full 24 hours after hearing it has left absolutely no trace in my memory.
There’s something involving two microphones some duct tape and some vigouros hitting (maybe comeuppance for being so misogynistic earlier) but it’s probably best if we did not go there.
And then there was the water in the bowls balancing act. While I can understand that balancing is a major part of everything they do, my mom tells some not so great stories of being told by teachers to walk around the classroom balancing a book on her head so that she would be able to walk in a lady-like fashion. Although she never had to do it with balancing on the shoulders or head of someone else, once you have the hang of walking with something on your head, doing all sorts of other things while its there is kind of second nature.
If Yaron Lifschitz really wanted to spice things up instead of water in a bowl (at ridiculously low levels) I’d suggest flames. But then again, he hasn’t asked me.
In the rider there is the risk assessment section which classifies the consequences of things happening – from 1 minimal to 5 catastrophic – and the only thing that rates a 5 is someone getting electrocuted during the show or an electrical fire happening because of the show.
This is definitely a circus that doesn’t take any risks. The highest any of the performers get above the stage is about 12 feet. If you fall from that height yes it hurts but you don’t die. The appearance of danger in a circus is always a good thing.
After the water in the bowls, the light descends, Ms. Rossi assumes the position there is some heavy breathing and the show finishes.
I’m still fascinated by how many hand-to-hand shows there are. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t know if it is a trend or if it is a preference of whomever is programming the festival. They make for small and intimate shows that can be extremely good. However by having so many of them playing almost concurrently it is inevitable that comparisons will be made. I’ll leave them to you.