Will the circle be unbroken? And is a better world awaiting in the sky? Ockham’s Razor breathtaking new show Tipping Point opens with the drawing of a circle, in salt and chalk, around the edges of the performance space, a square with the audience on all four sides. A safe space, a sacred space. May the gods and spirits guide and protect them. On the soundtrack, Tibetan bowls and church bells gently chime.
Long hand-held poles are carried in by the five performers, and a game ensues – Ockham’s like their playground games, they’re a feature of all their recent shows. There is teasing and running and jumping and swinging, as the poles are used to create constantly morphing shapes to move on or through – crosses and triangles and parallel lines. As the metal poles are swung around, they come very close to us – close enough to feel the danger, sending a tingle down our spines, and reminding us that in circus we are encountering the real, not just the representational. Eventually, the focus moves from the ensemble to the smallest of the five, Emily Nicholl. A pole becomes a novel sort of ‘tightrope’ that she balances along; two poles become an odd pair of wriggling parallel bars that she negotiates with a cartoon-like running on the spot movement, a cheeky grin on her face – the personal relationships played out between the performers here and throughout the show are theatrical in a gentle and low-key way. The until-now quiet audience bursts into a spontaneous burst of applause.
All change. Now there is just one pole, which is rigged from above the central point of the circle with a surprisingly quick click into place. (Any rigging or tethering and untethering of equipment is done calmly and methodically throughout the show as part of the stage action. There is no need to hide the process, we are entranced.) The focus is now on Steve Ryan, and we are into more familiar Chinese Pole territory – his smooth and fluid moves presented with elegant precision. Meanwhile, we’re looking at the four tethered poles at each corner of the space, outside the circle – as yet unused. Now’s the moment, and down they come. There’s a lovely choreography of raising and lowering, and the poles become dancing objects in the space. It’s lovely to see the show’s directors (Ockham’s Tina Koch and Charlotte Mooney) allowing the objects the time and space to be themselves, making patterns in geometric harmony. There’s a scene later in the piece where all five performers stand with the poles, which are attached at the top, swinging them to and fro, then climb to hang beside them from the truss, a gorgeous still image of vertical shapes; a landscape in which bodies made of flesh and poles and trusses made of metal co-exist.
More game-playing – lifts and drops and swings. Telma Pinto takes the spotlight, the strength and suppleness in her pole work (and elsewhere) is stunning. The scene shifts into a chase through the forest of poles, then into a toe-curling game of Blind Man’s Buff. There’s another major equipment change: the central pole gets detached from the top and clamped to a bar hung on bridles – so that the pole becomes a kind of see-saw or swing boat that can go a full circle (a little bit like a Wheel of Death without the wheels). Ockham co-director Alex Harvey and Nich Galzin are the daredevils who get to ride this contraption, flying through the air with the greatest of ease, two daring young men on a – well, not a flying trapeze but you get my drift. The pole is re-attached at the top, and Alex dons a sling for a beautiful cradle-style double with Emily, the other company members also basing from the floor, so that the scene becomes one of tender support, as Emily moves hand-to-hand from Alex in the air to the others on the ground and back again.
The piece comes full circle, to end with everyone on the ground, the lights shifting to intense violet to highlight the white of the salt and chalk markings. There is no great big grand finale, just a gentle winding-down that is mesmerising in its calm beauty; a spiritual moment, in which science and art unite to create a profoundly satisfying final image. You could hear a pin drop, and then – bang! – the house lights are up, and Ockham’s Razor get the standing ovation they so richly deserve.
Ockham’s have a great track-record in deconstructing and re-inventing circus equipment. Tipping Point gives us a fabulous exploration of the possibilities offered by the Chinese pole, which in their hands becomes the subject of an extraordinarily creative investigation. Perfectly pitched – their best show yet.
Tipping Point runs at Platform Theatre 11–23 January as part of the London International Mime Festival 2016. www.mimelondon.com