CircusFest, Roundhouse, London; 8th April 2018
In the middle of a studio floor, marked with tape into audience safe zones, Alexander Weibel Weibel is playing violin as we enter the space for Breaking Point. Pieces of funambulist rig sit at diagonal corners between us, and a stack of chairs, ladders and small tables are strapped together into a precarious and makeshift structure in another corner.
Unceremoniously, Weibel has ceased his music and started chatting to us. Informally. Now the atmosphere takes on a workshop demonstration vibe, as members of the crowd are enlisted to help put together the rest of the set.
A rope of paper waves before us as we listen to the rhythmic twisting that tightens the sheets into a walkable cord, slung and then knotted between secured rigs by Weibel and assistant Aino Ihanainen. Mounting the paper rope from her shoulders, Weibel crosses with care; we hear creaks of stretching sinew at every step, amid the silence of held breaths.
“Breaking Point is a show about tension.”
“Nothing here is fake”
PAUSE… Am I the only person who automatically begins to doubt the apparent veracity of what I’m watching when I hear this phrase? Because something’s happening here that doesn’t quite add up. Yes, it’s clear that the experiments of walking across uncertain strands of fishing wire and performing classic tricks of chair balance are authentic. That unicycling on communally constructed cord which pulls itself out of shape with Weibel’s weight is really showing us a genuine meeting of human and newly-minted material object. But these are rehearsed experiments. There is an educated expectation – from the performers, if not from us first-time viewers – of the limits and possibilities of these procedures, stemming from Weibel’s MA research practice at DOCH. If this show is about tension, it seems like an intriguing trick. Because the usual dramaturgical tools of creating dramatic tension are dispensed with. The pace is set by practicalities, no action given any more time than what seems required to achieve its function. Weibel’s easy demeanour, his tailed off sentences and “…Or whatever”s act in counterpoint to any suspense we might feel at his balances on the unstable equipment. Whether the juxtaposition is an unintended product from an informal style of presenting practice-research, or a carefully calculated disruption to the proposed theme, I enjoy the confusion.
Weibel generates a natural audience engagement, keeping us moving, encouraging us to ask questions, sharing his knowledge of knots, and loads, of his experiments and research. He never measures anything mathematically, he tells us. Every limit has been tested physically. When he begins his next feat, people call out safety warnings as the structures shift, eager to help.
The trustworthy part of a standard circus trick has been destabilised. Focus is no longer on the balancing body, but the balanced-upon. What is this sky-blue kettle doing, roped up to a high-chair like a hostage? The wondering is quickly cut off as the kettle is set into its role. Dissipating tension. Dissipating tension among the fibres of pulped and pressed pine. Yet demanding a new pressure from us as we wait for its effects to amass into a final, inevitable crash.
What would your two most precious possessions be? If you wanted to feel maximum tension in your trick, what would you hurl knives towards? I’m sure I would pick another human over an object but, even if Weibel’s choice is another slight dissemble, the effect of watching yourself spin on a board, filmed in real time by a helplessly rotating laptop, as knives are flung towards your face brings its own success.
Breaking Point is an unconventional show. If it is a show. Perhaps it’s a shared experiment. Perhaps it’s a physical lecture. We’re told it is about tension. But tension isn’t conscientiously built through text or stagecraft. It occurs, in the interaction of forces and scientific phenomena, and we experience it in fleeting segments, broken, and broken again. It’s an experience worth having, and unusual brain food too.