Announcing the first Guest Review for The Circus Diaries: American writer Kim Campbell saw British company Collectif And Then… perform work-in-progress of their latest show, No Man’s Land, following a residency in Chicago, and wrote this piece for us.
Aloft Loft, Chicago IL; 24th October 2015
No Man’s Land is all about borders and boundaries, and what happens when you cross them. It starts with the audience being ushered, military style, into the space and commanded to turn off our cellphones. By the time we’re seated (some of us having been ordered to switch seats with others) we have all accepted the performers’ absolute authority. At least hypothetically. This authority is part of the company’s experiment in pushing boundaries, by degrees, throughout the show, often expressed through voiceovers and even dialogue while in action.
Seating is arranged haphazardly and close to the stage to minimise the line between the performers and the audience. We don’t get many contemporary circus performances in Chicago (besides the annual Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival, so I sit up close to get a good view. This turns out to be a great decision, because anyone in the first four rows becomes part of the show, tossed into the action whether they want to be or not.
I didn’t really want to be, because being part of a show makes it more difficult to review, but I find myself entranced by Collectif And Then…, unable to resist their offers of M&Ms, meekly accepting their demands to keep my feet and hands in the proper area and to sit with the right people. And also, they need me to hold a rope. It feels good to be needed, if only for a brief while and, actually, I get off pretty easily. I am not the guy, called upon to hold a carabiner, that somehow ends up being balanced on by two performers having a tiff over which one gets to keep him. And I’m not the lady who has to spread her legs to let aerialist Lucie N’Duhirahe access a rope right above her seat (on which she then performs some exciting maneuvers, including the breathtaking drops we all know are coming). It might have crossed my comfort boundary to have an aerialist dangling inches above my head but, as it is, this congenial audience member just gets a stiff neck while apparently watching in admiration (it may have helped that N’Duhirahe danced with her beforehand, establishing trust and cooperation).
Lucie N’Duhirahe started Collectif And Then… with Francesa Hyde after graduating from Circus Space (now National Centre For Circus Arts) in 2009. With fellow company member Stéphanie N’Duhirahe, they have been in Chicago for a 2-month residency at Aloft, after being awarded the luxury of time and space to develop their work. Although they consider this presentation a work in process, they have invited the public to come see it, with a Q&A afterward, plus wine and snacks courtesy of Aloft.
There are heavy, ponderous moments, as the artists waddle around contorted and intertwined or as Lucie hangs from a rope over a pool of water in the dark while Fran and Stéph provide the only light via handheld torches. Rule breaking moments of suspense and hilarity – doing aerial in the dark, or above people’s heads, a little personal boundary pushing like offering candy to strangers and, once, inviting various audience members to help push a boob through a polyester sling – create a sense of intimacy with the performers, erasing the barriers between us.
The company’s virtuosity, cast against a backdrop of their borders theme (and, especially, the notion of crossing those borders), creates a compelling show. There are no discernible breaks in action to separate the material into ‘acts’, but the rhythms of movement, the music, voiceovers and apparatus change like a tide, imperceptible at first, but with dramatic difference by the end. As the three go about their business, fussing with rigging, using one another as human ladders in order to reach the double cloud swings, and flipping about in ways sometimes graceful and sometimes far more human than that, they somehow transcend the pieces of their work and point to a larger whole. The language and expression of their movement deconstructs circus like Martha Graham deconstructed dance.
“We played a lot with the rules of the space,’ Fran explains to us after the performance, ‘Because the main theme of the show is about boundaries and borders, so we thought, ‘What are the rules of being in a space?’ and ‘How can we make the people break those rules and how does it feel to break those rules?’ That was something that made a difference from the other shows we do.”
In exploring borders and place, the company also explored Chicago, interviewing people about their hometowns for the audio and thus including the influence of geography directly in their work. During the audience Q & A, Stéph describes the fun part of their work as “collecting a bag of stories” from the people they got to meet and work with. They have even had their airport taxi driver come in to play the trumpet, for a recording to be added to the show at a future date. (The taxi driver made it along to the performance as you might imagine!)
On their Facebook page, Collectif And Then… describe their mission as ‘using their minds, bodies, equipment and audiences to playfully explore.’ Most importantly, they admit that they don’t want to tell people what to think, but to open up a platform for discussion, using circus as a means to raise questions about society. This audience in Chicago certainly seem to enjoy having that platform opened. Even following some minor technical hiccups, the company receive a standing ovation and plenty of thoughtful questions about their performance. They tell us that they hope to return to showcase the finished piece in a year or so, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how it evolves.