‘All Genius All Idiot’, by Svalbard


Jackson’s  Lane, London International Mime Festival; 5th January 2016

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Santiago Ruiz Albalate and Ben Smith in ‘All Genius All Idiot’

All Genius All Idiot is the youngest of the shows at this year’s Mime Festival, and Svalbard‘s springlike greenery sometimes yields vibrant novelty with an exciting energy, while at others makes me feel like a long-suffering nanny hoping the company will get along with the maturing process soon.

I spend most of the show convinced that the four acrobats never began to consider what they might want to communicate to an audience, merely what they could show us. And, oddly, when they admit as much in the post-show discussion, I am suddenly much more taken with the idea of seeing this work in the context of an international festival.

I can dispense with all the interpretations I was trying to shoehorn around what played out on stage; no Discordian ambition; no ‘sexual and gendered freedom after the wilderness of uncertainty’; no bad drug trip and unhoused minds. What these guys were doing was exploring all the boundaries they could see between perceptions of genius and idiocy, and presenting them for us to look at.

Svalbard’s John Simon Wiborn and Ben Smith

There are a plethora of tricks: technical design gives us neon signs, a pile of plastic rubbish bags pulsating with inner light, a steaming bowl of dry ice; the musical composition and production give us ethereal live looping, country guitar, clubland rap, beautifully sung syllables free of meaning, and a mandolin; the circus trained bodies of Santiago Ruiz Albalate, John Simon Wiborn, Tom Brand and Ben Smith, who trained together at DOCH, give us head and hand balances, chinese pole, ropework and drag. What’s lacking is the kind of editing that could focus intention.

IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian
IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

If they wanted us to feel uncomfortable, they could have pushed further the slow opening black-out, the spasming bodies, the awkwardness of unusual contact, and the swinging lamp that at one point almost-but-not-quite invokes nausea. If they’d wanted us to feel disorientated, they could have further pushed towards the surrealistic and the unexpected, that they begin with their fur coats and swift shifts in activity. If they’d wanted us to think on issues about dropping in and out of societal norms, they could have pushed the characters into more distinct personalities and relationships to explore from. But if they don’t want to make us feel or think anything, why should we bother turning up? All Genius All Idiot has no apparent agenda beyond look-at-us-doing-things-most-people-haven’t-trained-to-and-other-stuff-we-like-doing.

The guys have worked very hard at building their working relationships and establishing a process through which they can make work together from different cultural backgrounds – that extend further than simply nation of birth into artistic taste and performance interests. I’m thoroughly impressed with the musical elements of the show, and find it notable that Svalbard are the first company I’ve ever seen to credit a ‘Musical exterior eye’, Mae Karthauser. But, usually during a post-show Q&A, I feel as if I’m hearing from experts on a thing. Today I just want to give the boys some pointers and advice. ‘What the show is ‘about‘ doesn’t matter‘, I would tell them, ‘The important thing is why you’re making it.’

An earlier incarnation of 'All Genius All Idiot'
An earlier incarnation of ‘All Genius All Idiot’

That said, there is something refreshing about seeing this early stage work in a high profile international festival. It’s refreshing that audiences get an introduction to (or for those old hands among us, a reminder of) how performance begins. It could be genius programming.

But it’s also idiotic. There’s nothing outstanding about any of the presentation or its purpose. Some bits of action are boring, and outshone by their accompanying sonic or technical effects. Some people will see this sub-par work, say ‘nah, circus theatre doesn’t work for me’, and stay away in future.

But what other choice is there? Circus is emerging into a performing arts world that is keen to cater to a developing trend and taste for it. Apart from the few established companies who have built a respected home on the scene over years of work (and who will not be available for every engagement, or produce new shows frequently enough to satisfy demand), it seems that anyone determined or lucky enough to connect with the right people will be able to find themselves a place at the high table with their first experiments. It’s a glorious time to be a maker of new circus work. But, perhaps, not yet so glorious to be an audience member trying to decide where to spend your ticket money.

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