Review: Compagnie XY in Le Grand C at Roundhouse

Performance: 17 - 24 April 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 20 April 2010

Compagnie XY, 'Le Grand C', Roundhouse, 17 - 24 April 2010

Reviewed: 19 April

Circuses aren’t what they used to be, which is probably not a bad thing. In their heyday, they were invariably seen in big top tents set up on a local field and the performance was like a cabaret variety show with clowns for comedians, a red-coated ringmaster for the M/C and animals and their trainers in place of singers, dancers and the rest; except, that is, for acrobats who even then crossed over between theatrical cabaret and big-top circus. Nowadays, circus companies are more likely to be seen in the theatre than a tent and the Roundhouse has brought together many of the best contemporary acts into Circusfest, which runs through most of April and early May. The particular unique dynamic of the Roundhouse with its circular, central stage giving a performance space of considerable height provides a perfect niche for displaying circus skills in a theatrical context.

Compagnie XY is a French circus company formed in 2005. Compared to the popular image of a circus, it could be described as a one-trick pony, since the entire 80-minute act is based around hand-to-hand acrobatics and, more particularly, the building of human towers (or ‘castells’ as they are called in Catalonia where the tradition originated). These castles were constructed in every conceivable way, beginning with the silent creation of a massed set of bodies in the dark and carrying on throughout the performance in every permutation of single-person pillars (or ‘pilars’) with five sets of three acrobats standing on each other’s shoulders to several variations on the theme of a four-person pillar, including the raising of the tower, in stages, from its horizontal formation along the ground (with the top woman held either by her feet or in a handstand). Acrobats climbed up through, or outside of, the human tower; or were catapulted up to its top level; four-person pillars collapsed seamlessly into smaller edifices; and perhaps most impressive of all was the apparent versatility of the 17-strong ensemble, with an enormous strongman climbing to the top of a tower and, separately, a slight, mini-skirted girl taking all the weight as the base of her pillar. The biggest of all the strongmen even managed to sing a French folk song (most of the way through) while he progressively balanced three others on his impressive shoulders.

There was little variety from the incessant castell-building: the girls tumbled occasionally but it seemed to be just another means of getting from A to B; acrobats balanced on a “log” (both upright on one end and “rolling”) and there were plenty of propelled leaps from a levered plank into elevated hand balancing. Perhaps best of all were the acrobats thrown from one tower to another, which in one particularly memorable sequence mimicked the firing of a human cannonball (perhaps, as a reminder of bygone circuses).

Not everything went smoothly and while some of the unsuccessful attempts may have been part of the circus tradition for deliberately failing in order to build up the momentum towards eventual success, some fluffs seemed to be genuine (or, perhaps, I was successfully hoodwinked!). The lighting was almost universally dim, clearly to aid the mystery of the movement and accentuate the dangers involved but I found this to have a certain soporific monotony after a while. However, this is not to deny that the passage of the show has a significant evolution such that the tricks of the early sequences, which seemed dangerous enough at the time, are greatly surpassed in ingenuity and adventure by the end, which oddly comes quite tamely given the earlier excitement.

I remember the circuses of yesteryear as rowdy, colourful, almost grotesque events. In complete contrast, this show has a certain refined beauty and quiet dignity; it’s also virtually monochromatic (with the odd exciting flare of red in the girls’ costumes). It might well be a one-trick pony but its one hell of a trick!

CircusFest continues at the Roundhouse until 16 May 2010.

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