Circus in Southside

The Arcadian, Birmingham; 24th August 2014

Sven Hopla in ‘Float’

This year I planned my Summer In Southside visit for the final Sunday of these free weekends of open-air performance that Birmingham Hippodrome organises each year.  This was the day with the biggest circus presence (although previous weekends have included performance from Acrojou, Mattress Circus, and French street clowns Les Goulus) and the programme has been thoughtfully put together to allow visitors to easily catch all performances of the day if so desired.

I was particularly keen to catch the sneak previews of local company CircusMASH’s first professional production Float, which debuts this weekend.  The central space of The Arcadian Centre is dominated by the company’s aerial rig, topped with a bright umbrella that matches their costume colours of vibrant pink, yellow, purple, jade green and sky blue – a palette that seems to have been lifted from the shining reflections of a soap bubble.

Director Zaq Andel is surveying the scene in a matching suit, and explains that today is something of a live rehearsal for the company, who have so far been working together for a week to put his ideas into motion.  A large part of the performance is going to be participatory, ‘We have four main scenes, which float in and out of workshop elements, and today’s shows are an opportunity for the performers to work with the crowds and explore their role as facilitators.’  

‘Get your circus on’, with CircusMASH

Andel’s face looks concerned but, when I see the team in action, I don’t think he has anything to worry about on this count – they excel in their engagement and encouragement of the audience, and I notice several families in the second workshop session whose enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have slipped for a moment since the show first began and hour and a half ago.

There is a DJ/accordianist (Dave Adams from The Destroyers), who provides a soundtrack of electro swing and grinding dub, giving a rousing modern energy to the proceedings; it feels like a party is in progress in the middle of the square.

Andel explains that his performers don’t come from the commonly termed ‘contemporary’ circus background, so working with character is new to many of them, and they’re developing relationships that will help to communicate the nature of the Float world.  I find myself especially enamoured of the structural ribbons and plastic balls that give a playful science feel to their costumes.  One of their performances is going to be a part of the British Science Festival next month, and it feels apt.  The deceptively young-looking contortionist Nina Van Der Pyl – who keeps the muscles that allow her to perform on the aerial ropes extremely well hidden under her fragile, childlike figure – is also studying for a PhD in Astrophysics!

Fran Widdowson on aerial chains with CircusMASH in ‘Float’

The show promises lots of cheeky clowning, acrobatic interludes, and a range of aerial displays, as well as opportunities for the audience to get involved and try out some of the skills.  If anyone catches a performance, please let me know your thoughts, as the full show dates coincide with my holiday escape to France.

Another performance that is getting a lot of hype from the Summer In Southside team is Straw Dog, by Wired Aerial Theatre.  As we’re led onto an upper level of a multi-story car-park, I feel like something exciting could be in store, but am underwhelmed by the production’s reality.  Straw Dog is a piece of bungee-assisted dance – a form the company have pioneered since founders Wendy Heskith and Jamie Ogilvie met in 1998 – that has been developed with acclaimed choreographer Henri Oguike.  Unfortunately, looking over their promotional material in retrospect, the internal struggles of oppositional forces they strive to portray are not apparent to me when I think back on the performance.

The stage is modelled on a boxing ring, with two supporting towers where black-clad human counterweights control the physical limits of Robert Guy and Stuart Waters on two centrally rigged bungee cords.  The precision of the four, navigating vertical and horizontal stretch whilst Guy and waters perform honed spins, leaps and holds, is excellent, but there is a lack of theatrical intention that leaves me bored.

The ‘Straw Dog’ set up

Guy and Waters are dressed in pedestrian streetwear, with wrapped fists and bruised faces, but the choreography doesn’t provide much that is combative.  I get a loose sense of anonymous people trying to escape some psychological entrapment, but the piece is more an experiment in form than a communicative performance.  I wonder if the classical music that plays as a soundtrack to the 11 minute display might reveal another context but, as I’m unfamiliar with the piece and its cultural relevance, whatever that might be is lost on me.

The sightlines are poor for the standing crowd of watchers and, once they’ve seen what Wired are offering, I spot several milling back out of the car-park to find other diversions.

Perhaps the encapsulated performance is up against it, facing an audience who have enjoyed recognition, acknowledgement and direct engagement from all the other pieces of work on offer today.  Many of us have just been herded up here after the hilarious antics of Le Navet Bete and this piece fails to compete at the same crowd-pleasing level.

The range of performance styles on offer today is fantastic, and I’ve already laughed and cried to both Helen Chadwick Song Theatre’s White Suit, and Inspector SandsHigh Street Odyssey, as well as watching the circus work I came for.  I have been emotionally spoilt so far, and the passive face of Straw Dog doesn’t appeal.

Le Navet Bete as part of Summer In Southside

Le Navet Bete’s clown Extravaganza, on the other hand, is fearless in its real-time confrontations with a real-life audience – which grows and grows as the show progresses until the square and encircling balcony are packed out with entranced passers-by.

In acrobatic, crotch-thrusting, clown concert carnage, the four distinct characters attempt to put on their best show for us and, as each man’s best show flies in the face of what his colleagues are trying to achieve, comedy drama ensues.

Matt Freeman (aka thug-headed, leotard clad ‘Dave’) lets out his inner Gleek; Dan Bianchi (as pseudo-French chef ‘Keith’) appreciates the finer things in life; Alex Dunn (just ‘Al’, as far as I can make out) thinks he is in charge; ‘Hans’, the self-proclaimed German culture vulture played by Nick Bunt, is appalled at all this frivolity, and repeatedly tries to turn the show back to ‘serious theatre’.

Le Navet Bete ‘Extravaganza’

There are custard pies, unicycles, slosh, fireworks, flowers and massive audience love amid the constantly surprising chaos.  There’s never a moment when the audience are forgotten and, at times, we’re as much a part of the madness as the four performers.

The company pick their audience targets discerningly and, while we laugh uproariously at their hapless predicaments, there is no victimisation (and I speak as someone who ended up with a ladder for a necklace and a banana skin on my head. Twice).

Le Navet Bete revel in irreverent body gags, but never crass vulgarity. The family audience is growing and guffawing with every puke, fart and bottom in the face.  It’s great to see a company who know what’s funny and refuse to adhere to prudish political correctness in the public environment.

In addition to the performances around the Southside site, the Young Ambassadors from the Hippodrome spent the weekend hosting a ‘Talkaoke‘ chat table, and I was pleased to hear – and jump in on – some conversations around circus activity and clown perceptions.  Hopefully these will be available online soon.

The Hippodrome continues to programme a high quality free programme to the people of Birmingham and, this year, I’m especially impressed with the diversity of performance styles offered, and the focus on public engagement and direct contact facilitated through most of the work.  Here’s to even more circus next year 😉

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