Typical: you wait ages for a trapeze show, and then along come two at once. But whereas the acrobatics in The Birds at the National Theatre are largely in the service of Aristophanes' 2400-year-old comedy, with Kayassine the aerial business is the entire raison d'être.
Les Arts Sauts present their 70-minute piece in a custom-built space, currently standing in London's Victoria Park. It is not a big top so much as a huge inflated bubble; one enters and exits through a form of airlock. Inside, the seating is deckchair-style, putting the audience in semi-supine position, the more comfortably to watch the goings-on above us. It feels a little like a planetarium, especially with daylight showing through pinpricks in the fabric before the show begins.
It starts slowly, with leisurely rope dancing and swing work by only a handful of the company, in dim light or individual spots. This establishes the sensation that Kayassine is a kind of airborne modern dance piece: no narrative, few concrete images, concentrating on general impressions and spatial relationships.
After a few minutes, what had seemed to be the solid, earthbound rostrum on which the musicians (two cellists and two mezzo vocalists) perform is slowly hoisted thirty feet or so into the air, and is revealed to consist only of a pair of parallel gantries with mini-platforms for the musos. The pace builds until two standard rope trapezes, a rigid "fix trapeze", a gantry crosswalk and both side gangs simultaneously have folk flying and catching in various permutations.
I have never really connected emotionally with displays of circus skills; I've admired the dexterity and discipline, but have seldom felt anything deeper. But here, in this space, with a musical score which somehow also seems to flit yearningly between earth and air, I think I began to understand.
Trapeze isn't simply an enactment of the age-old dream of flight. The precision, synchrony and interdependence speak of a world in which people put complete trust in one another and it is always repaid in a soaring togetherness. There's a potent romance on view in this kind of dynamic union, regardless of the sexes of the performers, and even something more numinous still, as flyers are snatched up from mid-air and so to speak redeemed from gravity. Even the brace of clowning routines have the same spirit at their core, an intimacy which is deeper than simple comradeship.
With all too many performance pieces, the attitude of "find your own meaning" is down to laziness and/or arrogance on the part of the company. With Kayassine, if you go looking for admirable physical skill and entertainment in that vein you will be more than satisfied, but you may also pick up its powerful non-verbal current, something affirmative and – pun only half-intended – uplifting.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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