The Tiger Lillies, that infernal, mesmerising cabaret trio led by accordionist and "castrato" vocalist Martyn Jacques, have developed a taste for collaborative live events in recent years. The best-known such project to British audiences is, of course, the "junk opera" Shockheaded Peter, which combined the musicians with Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter tales and Improbable Theatre's playful approach to staging. However, European audiences have also been treated to the Tiger Lillies Circus and more recently to L'Oratorio D'Aurelia, each featuring bizarre and surreal performance components to mesh with the demented polkas, diabolic klezmer and ballads of squalor which are the group's stock in trade.
Circa, now in presentation at The Pit, combines The Tiger Lillies with the core duo of Canadian dance company The Holy Body Tattoo for a 70-minute multimedia "celebration of the sensual forces of submission and control". Jacques' nightmare-Child Catcher persona as vocalist, and the rhythm section of Adrian Huge and Adrian Stout, flank the stage as Noam Gagnon and Dana Gringras begin an extraordinarily triste tango, falling into one another, as if the steps of the dance were their only support and sustenance. The song is, of all things, a Tiger Lillies cover of "Send In The Clowns".
Most of the dancing is tango-flavoured. Gagnon and Gringras use it as a transparent emblem of complex emotions: of negotiations and conflicts, advances and retreats, greed and abnegation. Bill Morrison's backdrop film sequences intercut mostly monochrome footage of the duo in a Parisian tango class with meditative, Doisneau-flavoured observations of the city. The music is largely drawn from Jacques and company's 2000 album Circus Songs: tales of lowlifes such as the raddled roué who shows carny visitors his bodily "Souvenirs" and the battered tattooed lady "Pretty Lisa". There is also a manic crucified-puppet dance to the gleeful blasphemy of the older favourite "Banging In the Nails" and a frenzied, more modern movement sequence backed by a taped piece from former Banshees musician Steven Severin.
In conception, this is principally a Holy Body Tattoo show which happens to draw inspiration from, and to work on stage with and around, the Tiger Lillies. Without the band, the dance component – "a series of numbers" illustrating a relationship, in Gringras's words, rather than a unified narrative moving through it – would be physically committed and soberly diverting, but little more. What gives the otherwise all but wordless show its substance is the dialogue not just of bodies in dance but of atmospheres as between the dancers and the musicians. And it is a dialogue in which, for all that he may go through the motions of self-effacement, Martyn Jacques will always be sure to dominate.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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