Persona. Your public face. The sum of your external behaviour traits. The way you talk to other people that causes them to see you as a particular kind of person. The image or personality that a person presents to other people. An assumed character for a fictional representation…
Four people – four personae – present themselves on stage. Who are these people? They offer themselves and their tricks to us, and to each other. Do you see me, they ask. This is just for you, they say to each other. Do you love me, they ask. Do you see me, they ask again. Yes, I see you.
What do I see? I see, hear, meet, learn to love, four women of different nationalities – Mexican, Italian, Finnish, Norwegian – speaking a babel of languages. I see four highly-trained bodies embrace the space, own the space, using the floor, the air, their own and other’s bodies, the equipment. I see circus tricks and turns – Chinese pole, contortion, hair-hanging, acrobalance – but more, much more. I see the playing out of female identity and human relationships; I see an exploration of the joys and challenges of circus; I see and feel and respond to the humour in the game-playing we are offered, and the observation of what it is that makes us human.
The four are onstage as we enter the auditorium, grouped around a small table, downstage left. We are cast as Alice about to enter the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, observing an endless round of clattering crockery and place changing, one high-pitched chattering voice (in Italian) dominating. The group disperses, and we are onto the next hallucinatory scene. A strong Chinese pole act (by aforementioned Italian Viola Baroncelli) offers the usual thrills of the form, with a neatly executed fast drop finishing the routine – but then the act subverts itself as the pole careers over and ends sitting at a rakish angle, ropes akimbo.
Enter contortionist and handbalancer Jatta Borg (Finland), who is dressed in a crab-pink playsuit – appropriately enough, as she crab-walks at a rate of knots around the stage, presenting the illusion that she has eyes in the back of her head, and limbs that know no limits of mobility. Perhaps she has. Her breathtaking strength and agility is matched by a softness and humour in the twists and turns and balances her body makes. She is joined by a second contortionist, Maria José Cåzares (Mexico), who describes her practice as ‘acrodance’. Which seems totally appropriate. Her energy – her persona – is a little tougher and harder, and bears the marks of a training in gymnastics and dance. The two bridged bodies scuttle around the stage then meet, face to face, upside down. It is a lovely moment, a skewed encounter. I’m reminded that eyes never seem to be upside down…
Our fourth performer/persona is Mari Stoknes (Norway), whose speciality is vertical rope and hair-hanging. And oh my Lord what hair! Waist-length and honey blonde, this magnificent head of shining and shimmering hair is hung from, tossed, shaken, hidden behind, manipulated in every which way. And later her comrades join her in a head-banging freak-out of hair-dancing – a fabulous statement of feminine wildness and exuberance. In these days of more and more modest dressing and hair-hiding, it is a pleasure to see these four wild women celebrating their hirsuteness on stage unfettered. Rock and roll!
In the second half of the show, spoken text takes on more importance, in a reflection on the act of seeing and being seen, and on placing yourself in the gaze of the world (aka celebrity). Who do we see? Who do we really see? Who do we remember? The Spice Girls become the subject of contemplation. Which Spice Girl are you, they ask each other. Who can name all the Spice Girls? Baby, Posh, Sporty, Ginger – and the one no-one can remember. ‘I just remember that she is Black’ someone says, in a moment that induces discomfort (in this audience member anyway), which I am sure is deliberate – Black bodies are often overlooked. ‘I don’t want to be the one that nobody remembers,’ they say. There are times in this section when the spoken text (in English) feels a little forced, and I long to hear the women’s voices in their native tongues.
When our not-the-Spice-girls foursome return to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, their hair is in front of their faces, obscuring their features. A comment on veiling, on hiding behind a mask?
The show’s exploration of identity and relationship gives more than a nod to the Jungian ideas of id versus ego; the play between the self and the shadow-self. We are what you see, but we are so much more too. Persona prompts us to reflect on whether we can ever really ‘know’ another person; and urges us to allow ourselves to be loved, warts and all.
Naga Collective are based in Brussels, having met at ESAC circus school – although some of them also met and trained at the Lido school in Toulouse. They describe their work as embodying the spirit of Brussels: ‘plural, mixed, vibrant… a melting pot of heritages.’
Persona is a superb piece of contemporary circus-theatre, exploring identity, challenging gender stereotypes, and celebrating femininity in all its complexity. The circus skills are top-notch; the scenography and theatrical staging of those skills inventive; and the onstage combination of all elements of sound, image and physical action carefully thought through – although by no means a linear narrative, Persona has a dramaturgical logic which is pleasing: it is far more than the sum of its very able parts. The piece was created collectively by the four women performers, joined offstage by director/dramaturg Virginie Strub (who also co-designed the show with Viola Baroncelli).
Yes, Naga Collective, we see you. We see you and we love you, and we hope to see a lot more of you.
Featured image of Naga Collective‘s Persona by Bernard Boccara.
FiCHO Festival runs in Guadalajara, Mexico 18–26 November 2017, and then tours to other towns in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. See www.fichofest.com
Social media: @FichoFest, #FiCHOFeST