‘Ritselingen’, by Rode Boom

Review from: Smells Like Circus festival, Gent, Belgium; 17th January 2024

I’ve heard plenty of whispers about the budding New Magic trend within the circus arts scene of France and Belgium over the last few years, but Ritselingen – whose English translation, according to the Rode Boom website, is itself Whispers – is one of my first encounters with it in person. According to Google Translate though, the title means Rustlings, which feels more suggestive of the experience, with its focus on sound and evocation of the natural world (it also gives a subtle hint at minor disturbance, or the beginnings of change, which seems apt in light of the psychological frisson created by both the trickery and the storytelling of the show). This performance, presented as part of the Professional Programme at Smells Like Circus, is its first try out in English, and everything seems to go smoothly. A spell is woven.

From the start, we are drawn in by a collection of objects we are asked to choose from and carry with us, before we approach the beautifully set playing area: An altar of natural materials, treasures and totems, harmonised with the trappings of science and technology that loop petal-red cables over metal trees and hang glass funnels from transparent bulbs. We are gently greeted by sound artist Hans Beckers, before magician Kurt Demey takes over with what becomes a sort of guided meditation, allowing Beckers to concentrate on creating the sonic landscape. Without wanting to give the game away by describing particular tricks, it’s fair to share that Demey calls himself a mentalist, while Beckers contributes the hand-crafted, trance-inducing instruments he uses in his creation La Floresta.

Technologies that recreate the sounds of nature blend with more human musicality to grow an atmosphere, while techniques of live sound manipulation lend additional clout to mind-reading tricks. The workings of the more visual tricks are obscured, but the staging doesn’t attempt to hide them completely – they are there if we look, if we try to understand. We can work it out if we’re so inclined, or we can give in to the illusion. The final trick, however, is different, using the oldest toolkit of mentalist magic. The way that seems so obvious but so unbelievable because of the effort of skill and dedication required to pull it off. And that is where it’s circus.

In the UK currently, magic is rarely considered a circus art, but here in Flanders it is part of the government recognised circus decree. In Ritselingen, the magic invoked is more closely akin to the traditions of witchcraft, or shamanism, rather than the theatrical presentation the word might conjure. Oh sure, there is theatricality in there, particularly in the shuffling leafy caterpillars or flittering, twinkling bat, but this is in the service of a deeper spell. I should highlight here that past experience has taught me I’m particularly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, so my response to the performance may not be typical. But, to me, Demey’s soft toned speech, that melds fantasy and physical reality, generates a metaphysical connection that elicits surprisingly strong emotions. And the end seems to come abruptly. The spell has not been closed. I’m left untethered, and bereft. In interview for Circus Magazine, Demey says that unpleasant reactions to his shows can be ‘an equally interesting artistic result’, and I don’t disagree. But I had been having such a beautiful, immersed experience until the sudden finish that I can’t help wishing this had been rounded off as satisfyingly. There is some narrative logic to this ‘non-ending’ that I can rationalise, but this has not been a performance for the rational mind, rather for the sensing and feeling parts of ourselves. Of course, the tone and phrasing of the spoken segments can be especially crucial to the sort of magic involving psychological manipulation, and my negative feelings could be a result of the Try-Out nature of this first English language performance. I’d go again (and not just to check how the final trick is managed!).

Ultimately, Ritselingen is a slow encounter with the fabulous – in the oldest meaning, pertaining to fable – of which we are all an integral part.

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