Circomedia, Bristol; 24th February 2016
A new piece of aerial equipment waits in the centre of a vast black stage. A double-W of crossed ropes and twinned trapeze bars, that we find later is referred to as ‘The Beast’ by the creative team. This is the first time that aerialists Océane Peillet and Alice Watson have presented Betwixt & Between in front of an audience, and we’re invited to leave written feedback after the show, and stay for a Q&A with the performers and their director, Gwen Hales.
The show is an exploration of connection between the two women in an abstract world. I don’t know who they are, or why they’re here (I imagine some unspoken Godot), but I recognise the interplay between the two. Peillet is pragmatic, a stage manager, a rule follower. Watson is extravagant, a performer, mischievous. Through the course of the show, they find a way to shed their differences and discover how to begin really seeing the other.
I have been thinking lately about how a prominent part of circus audiencing relies on sense experience, and about how I can communicate that in my reviews. Perhaps I need to talk more about what I feel. In Betwixt & Between, I feel disconnected, until a heavy breach of trust between the characters brings a much needed tension to the room (the invisible fourth wall between us and the performers seems an odd choice for a show whose narrative is based on theatre-clown technique, and the character definition is understated so there are no real clashes for us to enjoy in our voyeurism until this point). I feel like I want them to play with each other more heartily.
When Watson’s character opts out of the show due to hurt feelings and hurt bones, Peillet’s reprise trying to carry both parts is amusing, and demonstrates the value of empathy and of understanding another’s experience. I see the tenderness in their relationship when a pronounced touch of hands moment has to be re-played alone. This walk-a-mile-in-her-shoes effort allows the two to bond and build together in new partnership, towards a visually fascinating choreography together on the intertwined trapezes that leaves me wanting more. The equipment separates and recombines during the show, with the two trapeze bars attached to each other through pulleys overheard. One of the most memorable sequences from the show is a choreography that raises and lowers each performer through a see-sawing splendour of mirrored moves that respond to each other visually, sometimes in sync, sometimes through complementary difference.
The first time I remember seeing a pulley system as an essential component of an aerial apparatus was in Every Action, by Ockham’s Razor, at my first ever circus festival in 2008. In recent years, the concept seems to have become increasingly common, and I connect the dots to Hales’ performance on pulleyed silks in Flown. Despite her involvement with this project now, though, it transpires that this idea was already being developed independently by Peillet and Watson prior to the Flown rehearsal period.
‘We wanted to work together’, explained Peillet. ‘But we didn’t want to do doubles trapeze or synchronised trapeze. So we tried to see what else we could do with two trapezes. Training became “Let’s make an act”, and “Let’s make an act” became “Let’s make a show”.’
Creating the show has been a long process. The concerted rehearsal period for Betwixt & Between began six months ago and, in that time, the team have had a total of around six weeks to work on the material together. Because of the equipment’s design, the pair of performers have to be present at the same time to train, so the period has included much juggling of schedules, with company admin being completed in between times. As well as funding support from ACE towards artist fees (after two unsuccessful applications for the project), CirqOn the Seam have received support-in-kind from Circomedia, who’ve provided technical advice and outside eye commentary, as well as rehearsal space during their holiday periods.
‘There are never enough rehearsal spaces’, laughs Hales. ‘It’s our dream to find somewhere warm for our rehearsals. We’re looking into residencies in Europe but, of course, it has to be the right fit.’
The company also dream of having the resources for a musician to join them throughout all rehearsals, instead of seeing little bits then having to go away and work on composition in isolation. The music for Betwixt & Between is by Ellie Rusbridge and what I hear includes melodic piano, pre-verbal communication sounds – like something from the teletubbies – and electronic tinkling which, at one point, dissolves into joyful release of live grunting breaths from Peillet and Watson.
Another significant contribution to the simply set show is the delightful costume design from Bianca Ward, whose denim jumpsuits are patterned with flashes of coloured print that nod both to a recognisable clown overalls aesthetic and to the sexiness of aerial circus tradition (the cut-out backs providing, of course, the practical flexibility needed for acrobatic aerial work). They aren’t identical, but they tie the characters into the same world. Thinking about the show now, the costumes seem to speak wordlessly for the performers: ‘We are so similar. Why do we allow the tiny differences between us to stand in the way of our relationship?’.
If the show has a meaning, this must be it. Language difference as well is held culpable, and the large chunks of French and Spanish text near the start of the show are abandoned to allow for the more universal connection of eyes, bodies, hearts and minds. There’s no anger apparent in the underlying politic, just a sweetly optimistic hope. But, perhaps, a little anger – the felt antagonism so prominent in our increasingly factionalised society – is what we need right now in order for the positive solution to have as much impact as the striking visual presentations?