Feature in Issue 22-2 | Summer 2010

From heart-in-mouth acrobatics to lions in fishnets – Charlotte Smith is left speechless at the Roundhouse.

Circus at the Roundhouse… is there anything more to say? The place has history in its curves, as well as a snazzy rooftop bar today. A Victorian steam engine shed, then a gin warehouse, it became Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 in the 60s, named after the unions’ article 42 stating that the arts should be for everyone. Peter Brook, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Ramones…

The newly renovated Roundhouse held its inaugural circus festival in 2006. This year, CircusFest presents live work by companies from Colombia, Brazil, France, Australia and the UK – from Trash City to Acrobat via Marisa Carnesky – alongside circus-themed music gigs, exhibitions, talks, and films, including a presentation by the legendary Gerry Cottle and a showing of James Marsh’s acclaimed documentary film, Man on Wire.

Watching circus can defy words. Thrilling and humiliating, it sometimes takes me back to a jellyfish teenager, unable to do handstands and cartwheels, jealously watching others who can. I was warned that Compagnie XY do ‘pitching’ – not sales or ships, but performers launched and flying like projectiles through the air. Yet nothing prepares me for the heart-in-mouth experience of watching Le Grand C.

The piece starts slowly. In semi-darkness, the company forms the first of their human pyramids, a stack of four plus four plus two. Snatches of accordion music and traditional costumes help conjure up a timeless village green in France. But as the pace picks up, the seventeen-strong company soars and dives in complex and breathtaking formations. Petite women are catapulted metres through the air from the teeterboard; they execute backward flips and somersaults from a column of two others, balance on a single leg or shimmy playfully, and are caught perfectly by groups.

Into this are woven gentle glances, quizzical or nonchalant looks, so the show has a warmth and connection throughout. Acrobalance and medieval song are combined, with the live patter of Celle qui m’aime as human totem poles are formed.

The performers climb up each other with great care; at another point, two simply hug near the teeterboard. And when an older member of the company talks the others through some of the final balances, it gives a glimpse of the technique involved, as well as the nerve, skill and danger. So Le Grand C is memorable not just for its myriad stacks, courage and heart-stopping movement, but also for the feeling that you only live through the people who support you, balanced precariously.

The Milkwood Rodeo by Sugar Beast Circus recreates the atmospheric, bizarre and gently sinister world of a traditional circus in India. It starts with a harlequin figure, with spangly clothes and a silky ruff, lying on stage. Flickering clips of circus artists are accompanied by tales of 40 degrees celsius at midnight, corrupt managers and the disappearance of Frank, who is dwarfed by his Sinatra-style name. Snatches of song become jarring and uncomfortable, as we hear about the animal trainer who lost half an ear or the management carrying the takings to their tent while the troupe goes hungry. The images can be funny (projections of dogs), evocative (a clown’s face floating behind a gauze) and clever (as the angular body mirrors a starry constellation). But the piece has tantalisingly few tricks, with the movement instead suggesting a lonely figure after or before a show.

Sugar Beast Circus Show features longer, acrobatic sequences using aerial hoops to describe an imaginary meeting between PT Barnum and Charles Darwin. Its narrative can seem slightly unreliable. ‘Infinity’ is used when you expect ‘affinity’; Darwin’s masterpiece of 1859 is described as ‘the evolution of species’, not On the Origin of Species, and we are told about Schrödinger’s bear, not cat. Three white-clad, sequined performers each have their own circus tent, which acts as a curtain. An aerial duet is particularly accomplished, and there is a disappearing act as two are gobbled up by a lion. The huge lion mask, on a petite dancer in beige fishnets, was perhaps the biggest beast of all in an evening of sugar and spice, tamed and wild animals. Words again seem clumsy compared with the physical grace of the circus.

Charlotte Smith saw Compagnie XY: Le Grand C, 19 April 2010 and Sugar Beast Circus: The Milkwood Rodeo / Sugar Beast Circus Show, 17 April 2010, as part of Roundhouse Circus Fest 2010

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Issue 22-2
p. 31