Author Archives: Thomas JM Wilson


About Thomas JM Wilson

Thomas JM Wilson has been writing for Total Theatre since 2001. His own performance work lies at the borders of dance and theatre, with a particular interest in solo performance. He is an Associate Artist of Gandini Juggling, working as Archivist and Publications Author. He also currently teaches on Rose Bruford's BA European Theatre Arts, and is a co-editor of the Training Grounds section of the journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training.

Gandini Juggling & Alexander Whitley Dance: Spring

After 29 years of experimenting at the boundaries of juggling, Gandini Juggling have returned to their earliest roots, merging contemporary dance with juggling in their latest work, Spring. Choreographed by Alexander Whitley (a New Wave associate artist at Sadler’s Wells, who previously worked with Ballet Rambert and Michael Clark, before forming his own contemporary dance company), and featuring dancers from Whitley’s company alongside performers from Gandini Juggling, this is a beautifully complex and driving work charting new territory, whilst also squeezing in recognisable Gandini motifs.

It was in the early 1990s that Gandini Juggling began combining contemporary dance with juggling. Inspired by classes with the late Gill Clarke they invited her to choreograph what was to become nEither Either botH and. This was a gentle and meticulous deconstruction of juggling, pulling it apart to find the dance inside. By contrast, in Spring, Whitley seeks to find a way to genuinely hybridise dance and juggling, particularly in the exploration of low centres of gravity and the dominance of floor work. What Clarke and Whitley share, though, is the desire to choreograph new (juggling) material – not to relocate established patterns and motifs into the choreographic world, but to genuinely find new patterns and new forms of dance-juggling. And so, Spring (alongside Sigma, their collaboration with Bharatanatyam choreographer Seeta Patel, before it) finds a place as one of Gandini Juggling’s most groundbreaking works.

At the heart of Spring is also the choreography’s relationship to music and to light. The score by Gabriel Prokofiev – which fuses live drumming, a string ensemble (Camerata Alma Viva), and electronic music) – is the driving force of the piece, catapulting the performers and objects through the space. It is both relentless and enticing, so much so that the moments of silence land as clear punctuations in the work. It is in these moments of silence that Gandini’s humanisation of the performer allows space to breathe; with one or more performers facing the audience to introduce each other in silence. These moments, familiar from other Gandini works, provide a moment of rest, a kind of luftpause, for the audience. 

There are also moments of respite in Guy Hoare’s lighting score, which is guided by a similar depth and intensity. His palette plays deep shades of colour off against starker paler states, shifting the mood in striking ways throughout the dance. Hoare also plays with the visibility and invisibility of the musicians (sat upstage and often in striking poses when not playing), hiding and revealing them in different manners throughout the work. In doing so, Hoare shifts the music from hidden, ethereal accompaniment to a live and present force.

Amongst this world of sound and light, the juggling and dancing blur. Though experts will pick out the specialists, it becomes increasingly clear that everyone is dancing and everyone is juggling. The choreography is nuanced and rapid, with dance-juggling moves that shift across the floor and into space. One, two, three balls move between the dancer-jugglers: the balls arch through the air, or are placed into hands. Arms and legs move sinuously, weaving in and out of each other, just as the balls do. Even in the more complex scores there is a space for everyone. The established company members of Gandini Juggling, Kati Ylâ-Hokkala, Kim Huyn  and Erin O’Toole, bring a rootedness to the performance, around which the younger and newer members of this collaboration orbit and weave.

Gandini Juggling have often welcomed guest performers to their works, and this performance at Sadler’s Wells was another of these occasions, with award-winning, world-record-holding American juggler Wes Peden bringing a virtuoso display of juggling skill to proceedings. Peden is a slightly rough and ready contrast to Whitley’s slick choreography, but this is his function; another shift in rhythm and tone that enhances the richness of the overall work. Gandini Juggling have a fondness for placing anarchic figures into their work, and here Peden is just that figure.

Although much of Spring is almost an entirely new territory for Gandini Juggling, there are still trademark Gandini structures, once again reinvented: the counting of counts, the naming of colours, the gentle recognition of drops, the prone line of jugglers juggling above their chests – and of particular note, four-person ring-passing patterns.

The last of these is a long-established part of Gandini’s work, appearing in various forms since the 1990s, but most often seen as a single-file line of four jugglers, each facing into the centre of the line and passing to the other three jugglers. It is a captivating arrangement, that combines a mathematical rigour with an elegant flow. In Spring, it is transformed by the addition of an old established juggling trick of ‘changing’ each ring’s colour whilst being juggled, so that a red ring becomes a blue ring, a white becomes a yellow, or other dizzying combinations. In doing so, each pattern’s structure might be revealed so that we can see the ‘code’, or it might become ever more complex so that we are disorientated.

In this fusion, Spring is a total theatre, where the artforms of dance, juggling, light design, and music weave and bob their way in and out of each other, rarely settling in one place for long. It is a cavalcade that is satisfyingly exhausting to watch, and like all good works you have the feeling that a second (and a third) viewing would allow you to fathom the depths of it just a little more. The question I often return to is: Where next for Gandini Juggling? What surprises might they have in store?



LIMF 2018: Life is a Circus

Thomas Wilson reflects on three very different contemporary circus-theatre shows seen at the London International Mime Festival 2018


London International Mime Festival enters its 41st year, and as usual proves to be the single best place to get a glimpse of the diversity of visual and physical performance currently around. This year is no different, from the surreal beauty of Brussels-based Peeping Tom’s physical/dance theatre, to the physical comedy of New Zealanders Trygve Wakenshaw and Barnie Duncan, and the gentle humanity of British mask company Vamos.

It is also a place that you can catch some of the most interesting contemporary circus performers from around the world, including Finland’s Kalle Nio, whose show Lähtö opened the Festival; French artists Laurent Cabrol and Elsa de Witte with their intimate circus-puppetry piece, Bêtes de Foire – Petit théâtre de gestes; and perennial favourites, Compagnie Mpta, who this year presented Santa Madera, a two-man Cyr wheel show created by Argentinian Juan Ignacio Tula and Swiss-Costa Rican Stefan Kinsman under the guidance of French circus maestro and renowned acrobat, Mathurin Bolze.

The Festival also welcomed not one but two Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 Total Theatre Award winners. Gandini Juggling’s Sigma, which explores the creative interface between juggling, geometry and classical Indian dance, won an Award for Physical and Visual Performance. The Total Theatre and Jacksons Lane Award for Circus went to Fauna, which is presented, unsurprisingly, in association with Jacksons Lane. Fauna are a young company of five, they are all graduates of Sweden’s circus school powerhouse DOCH, and their eponymous show (a blend of trapeze, hand-balancing, tumbling, and stacking) hums with a youthful energy. Constructed from their enquiry into the relationship between circus bodies, animals and sound, Fauna manages to be playfully innocent whilst weaving darker moments throughout the hour-long show.



Fauna. Photo Kate Pardey

Fauna. Photo Kate Pardey


The inquisitive nature of the work results in Fauna finding some genuinely interesting interpretations and alterations of existing circus tricks and tropes, and helps it sustain the pace of the work as a whole. It is most compelling when the body is made strange – not through acrobatic tricks but rather through simple flexions, rotations, and (insect-like) articulations of the joints that disrupt the recognisable form of the body. This motif runs throughout the work, and alongside simple (and sometimes a little too simplistic) clown play, embellishes the quintet of characters who traverse the bare stage.

In this there are some genuinely striking moments, particularly when the physical articulations are accentuated with different rhythms. For example, as Enni-Maria Lymi hangs from the swinging trapeze she rotates and flexes the elbow and shoulder joints, as if testing the limits of her limbs like a hatching mantis. In doing so, the trapeze is forgotten and instead her body takes on a strange and alien form. This is circus where physical discoveries set up a productive tension with the trick or known form of the body.

This is not to say that Fauna don’t offer spectacular tricks, because they do. It’s just that at times these tricks feel like they are a youthful exuberance rather than fully sitting in the world they have established. A male duet midway through the performance, although dynamic and punchily delivered, is rather cold, lacking the clarity of purpose and nuance of characterisation as the previous scenes, and so it feels out of place. It’s thrillingly athletic, though, and more of a question of framing than quality of the material.

In their defence, it’s important to note the way that Fauna sustains tricks beyond the point where a more ‘trick-orientated’ circus show might stop: instead exploring the possibilities that occur when a trick is sustained. This is intriguingly the case in Daniel Cave-Walker’s head balance, which once established (and when the audience goes to applaud) carries on. Cave-Walker remains in this position and then slowly begins an insect-like articulation of the leg joints, elongating the head-balance until it ceases to become an astonishing trick and instead transforms into something more compelling – a strange inverted creature whose leg-antennae attempt to sense the air.

It is the female performers in this work who stand out in terms of character: Rhiannon Cave-Walker has an easy knowing charm, persuading her partner to (literally) play with her in a game of falling and catching whilst avoiding an overly laboured quality. There is a mature air to her work, and one that doesn’t need to work the audience too hard.

Enni-Maria Lymi works at the other end of the spectrum, the innocent trying to make sense of her world, with a direct and explicit audience relationship. Her charming attempt to understand the trapeze is a highlight of the show, particularly in the way she builds the tempo and dramaturgy of the vignette. Her characterisation risks becoming a little too broad and simplistic later on but doesn’t quite tip over into that territory.

Geordie Little’s music composition and soundscape – an intriguing mix of acoustic flamenco guitar with sampled and looped sounds and beats – is the driving force of the work. In fact (given the bare stage) it is another character, that also contextualises the action in an unobtrusive but efficient manner. There are moments where the relationship is explicitly stated, the sound cutting out and the performers pausing deliberately awaiting the resumption of the sound is one such moment.

In essence, Fauna works because it embraces the fact that the human body is a meaning-making tool, even if working with formal tricks and abstraction. Although not fully polished, and with some simplistic elements it is nonetheless a great debut work.



Nacho Flore: Tesseract. Photo Erik Damiano

Nacho Flore: Tesseract. Photo Erik Damiano


Former Moscow State circus artist, Nacho Flores’ Tesseract is also a piece that sets out to make a bold statement, though this time it is for Flores’ inventive and novel choice of balancing apparatus. Although trained as a high-wire specialist, Flores’ chosen apparatus is a host of wooden cubes, of myriad sizes, stacked into neat towering columns across the stage. With these Flores presents a series of ostensively unconnected scenes.

Tesseract opens with Flores’ stood atop one column, a metre from the ground, and holding a pint of water. This column is only one in a snaking line of many others, wending its way across and down stage until it meets a small chair balanced precariously on four taller columns. Then comes a table, also balanced on four taller columns; and finally a plant perched precariously atop a final, thicker, and even taller column. What follows is a simple-looking, but increasingly tense, journey along the top of these columns towards the table. There are collapsing columns, spilt water, and heart-stopping moments. Flores has an easy charm, and his amplified vocal hums, oohs, and errs ensure that the dramatic tension of this journey is sustained – until in one final crash columns and all collapse.

The following scenes repeat this same pattern (after all what goes up must come down), but Flores finds a variety of ways of stacking and deploying the cubes. There are, for instance, some touching ‘cubist’ human figures and a charming block-puppet. Most impressive though is Flores’ ability to flip, rotate, spin and balance one cube on another, all whilst standing on it. This is pure, gob-stopping classic circus and as such a real crowd-pleaser and the highlight of the show.

For his finale, Flores integrates his balancing with cutting-edge 3D video mapping. It’s an interesting development, but one that appears to reduce his opportunity to explore his core skill of balancing. Instead, there is a trade-off that lets the projection produce the tension and instead (at times) Flores’ seems to become a facilitator for the animated images.

However, despite these rough edges, it’s enjoyable to see a show that originates in a genuinely inventive approach to apparatus and a search for new skills, declaring this openly and without the window-dressing of a wider theme. And, whilst the dramaturgy of the show is a little clunky (endings are a little anti-climactic, some moments a little too long, and the jumps from scene to scene need something to bridge them), the technical artistry is thoroughly enjoyable.


Sacekripa: Vu. Photo Alexis-Dorc

Sacekripa: Vu. Photo Alexis-Dorc



Sacekripa’s Vu is a very different beast. A solo from a collective of experienced circus artists that has grown out of the famous Lido circus school in Toulouse,  back for their second Mime Festival appearance following the success of two-man show Maree Basse. Vu is one of those shows you wished you had made yourself: simple in conception, nuanced in execution, and utterly beguiling. The premise is simple: a single performer makes a cup of tea. So simple in fact that it could almost be (actually it is) an actor’s training exercise. But when your actor is a circus performer of this calibre, strange and compelling things become possible, and making a cup of tea becomes a microcosm of the world.

As with Brook’s maxim, Vu begins with a single performer entering the space. In the space a slightly raised wooden platform, a low table, a tiny chair, and a slowly revealed host of props. What results from this simple situation is a gradually increasing level of fastidious complexity in the ways that simple tasks, such as putting a tea bag in a mug or lighting a candle, can be achieved in the most complex manner (in this world, both examples require the use of a blowpipe). What results is a kind of delightful, perverse efficiency, so much so that it would be criminal to reveal more for fear of ruining the surprise.

Think then instead of a solitary Gallic version of Morecambe and Wise’s legendary breakfast routine, played at Harold Pinter-speed, but with melancholy and resignation as the principal tones, and only a cup of tea for salvation. The timing of surprises is impeccable, and the repetitive inclusion of an audience member masterfully handled. This latter element ensures the technical mastery and inventiveness doesn’t become alienating: the whole relationship with the audience is handled with such a casual disdain (tempered with occasional praise) that you’d think performer Etienne Manceau was a particularly grumpy school teacher.

By the end, Vu is an articulation of the idiosyncrasies of an individual’s daily life (tea before milk, dunk don’t stir the tea bag, two lumps or three) taken to their absurd conclusion. This means we are treated to acrobatic sugar cubes, meticulously measured milk, and the most complex way of striking a match you’re likely to see.

What makes Sacekripa’s work stand out is the genuine innovation of their tricks, and the way Vu hovers between a classic vaudevillian approach to the sketch (especially in the meticulously inventive detail) and the quiet frustrations of absurdist drama. It is no surprise that the company are mostly jugglers – for who knows failure, objects and precision like the juggler, and who shoulders that with quiet and firm resignation to keep on going? That might well be the message of Vu, but you’ll be too entranced to really bother considering such things.


Fauna: Fauna was presented at Jacksons Lane, 11–14 January 2018; Sacekripa: Vu at Shoreditch Town Hall, 25–27 January 2018; Nacho Flores: Tesseract at Jacksons Lane, 26–28 January 2018.

For full details of all shows and events in the London International Mime Festival 2018, see 


Mossoux Bonté: Whispers

Whispers is one of those Mime Festival shows that doesn’t quite fit into any category, at once both dance and object animation, it is also neither of these. And, although there is only one performer visible on stage throughout (Nicole Mossoux) she almost certainly isn’t alone. Moreover, though the work originated out of an interest in finding ways for a performer to make their own soundtrack to  accompany their movement, it is Colette Huchard’s costumes that appear as chief amongst the expressive tools at Mossoux’s disposal.

Using Huchard’s designs, Mossoux is able to conjure an array of characters, human and non-human alike. Skirts shrink, different jackets morph into strange creatures, whilst headdresses seem to come alive of their own accord. Central to the life of these ‘costumes’ is their materiality: the velvet sheen of Mossoux’s ‘base’ dress, which seems to make her body outline disappear into the blackness of the stage as if in a haze; the pale-pink ruffles of a what looks to be a baby’s jacket but here serves, as first, an elaborate wig before transforming into a curious headless puppet; and a striking red glove, the beak of one-legged ‘goose’ before Mossoux tears it from her hand and discards it into the darkness that surrounds her.

This darkness is key; Mossoux Bonté’ (Nicole Mossoux and her collaborator of 30 years, director/scenographer Patrick Bonté) conjuring the sense of a rich dreamworld surrounded by a bleak and hungry void. The lit areas are constructed in such a way that, as in mask performance, Mossoux only needs to make a small shift in her position to radically change the character she is channeling. It is also clear to see, by in the way in which Mossoux and her animations are made to standout from, or disappear into, the shadows, the company’s starting point of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. In a way Bonté uses light to achieve a sense of bas-relief, and, more astonishingly, a sense of ‘folds’ of light; folds that seem to release Mossoux from their clutches only to grab her again, pulling her back into the dark.

Mossoux manipulates the folds of her body as expertly as she does the folds of the costumes. Her movement, particularly her evocative facial expression, has at times some of the qualities of Butoh: the disarticulation of a limb, or a rapid trembling followed by stoney stillness. This makes her as mercurial as the costumes, such that the combined effect of costume, light and body is such that Whispers seems to hover in a strange unfixed territory, moving without a singular direction but nonetheless covering a great deal of ground.

But of course, the title Whispers implies that this is a piece about sounds. The soundtrack is produced by a combination of Mossoux’s actions (a scratch here, a tap of the feet there) amplified and engineered by Thomas Turine, and the foley sounds of Mikha Wajnrych (hidden out of sight in the dark void. Whispers then is performed by a trio (Mossoux and her two musician/technician partners), and it is the work of this trio that craft the thread of the work, creating a rhythmic and sonic score that the visual world appears to surf on top of.

Whispers is by turns beautiful and confusing. No single stage image or character remains for long, with a succession of shifting and changing figures created and discarded – there is no character or even motif development here – and as Mossoux arrives in her final position, on the edge of the stage facing out into the auditorium, it feels as if you too are emerging from some strange fantasy.



Nassim Soleimanpour: Blank

The Iranian director Nassim Soleimanpour first came to prominence in the UK in 2012 when his play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was first staged. This was a play with no rehearsals, no director, and a script that the solitary actor only saw the moment play began. At the time, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was interpreted as an exploration of Soleimanpour’s own status in Iran: a conscientious objector and therefore banned from travelling. Soleimanpour himself, though, declared that he was more interested in the social phenomenon – that of obedience. In either case, the conceit of leaving the embodiment of the playwright’s script up to the actor and the audience in the moment of performance served as a fertile metaphor.

Soleimanpour’s latest play Blank uses the same device. Each night a different performer finds themselves in front of an audience, with only some blank A4 paper, a marker pen, and some tape. The stage manager produces the play from an innocuous brown envelope, and the play begins. There is some preamble, an explanation of the text’s ‘blank’ spaces in each sentence – spaces which the performer, and later on members of the audience, are to fill in.

Tonight’s performer is Franco-British comedian (or ‘professional idiot’ in his words) Eric Lampaert: 6’4”, whip-thin and (according to him) fresh from a wedding. Lampaert is a genial ‘host’, with an easy manner, and a good line in shifting between self-deprecation and gently scathing observation. In this context he deftly manages the negotiation of the empty spaces in Soleimanpour’s sentences, and ensures that Soleimanpour’s somewhat philosophical text, which imagines first the past and then the future, avoids becoming too solipsistic. Soleimanpour’s structure demands a certain collective endeavour on the part of the audience, though this is quite tightly guided – the audience only shaping the specifics of the story rather than the structure of the piece, so the actual task often feels more of a party game than an actual collective authorship. лицензия казино онлайн

Although this collective authorship serves as the basis for Soleimanpour’s reflections, the shift in Soleimanpour’s writing from the ‘narrative’ of the tale to the ‘reflective commentary’ is a little heavy-handed and in some ways the reflective paragraphs lay out too clearly what Soleimanpour wants us to understand about the nature of writing. In this way, the play becomes a little too didactic, and whilst an entertaining and at times moving experience, everything is on the surface a little too much.


Blank is presented at the Edinburgh Fringe by Aurora Nova

ParaladosanjoS: Molhados&Secos (Wet and Dry)

Made in response to the Brazilian floods of recent years,  Sao Paulo based circus/visual/physical theatre company ParaladosanjoS have crafted a disorientating and affecting attempt to capture the material and human cost of ‘natural’ disasters. The harrowing toll includes the floods which the company members experienced personally in their home town of Campinas, Sao Paulo; the floods which killed over 900 people in upstate Rio de Janeiro in 2011; and last year’s toxic mudslide in Mariana, Minas Gerais.

Composed of four different sections, each directed by a different director, Molhados&Secos opens as a poetic evocation of the stillness of fountains, before quickly sliding into more visceral territory. Over the course of the work a series of fragmented stories gradually begin to coalesce – not into a single linear experience, but rather into glimpses of fractured moments, focused mostly on the moment a couple attempts to rescue their possessions and escape from the flood.

The fragments of these terrifying moments are repeated, deconstructed, eroded, and added to – each time teasing out the sensations of powerlessness and horror in the face of the flood, as if the characters can somehow, by replaying each moment, resist the rising torrent of water and silt. This is where the piece is at its strongest, in the way that it skilfully captures the disorienting and amplifying effect of being struck by the force of nature, in the embodiment of the chaos and impotent rage against what mere water can take away. This is most literally staged in a tumbling and ultimately deadly aerial sequence, in which one man tries to save his lover. Here, the disorientating sensation of being under water is skilfully conveyed – and it is possible to feel the burning of their lungs as they slowly run out of air.

But as well as the struggle against nature, there are also the struggles that humans visit upon each other, as the characters recount how those whose homes had been flooded placed their furniture and belongings outside to avoid the water rising from their drains, only for their possessions to be stolen. In this moment it becomes clear that the piece is not just about humanity’s Sisyphean resistance in the face of natural disasters, but that we too might be one disaster away from darkness, and that we might not be able to count on all of our neighbours.