Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 15 January, 2009

There is something at once entirely abstract yet universally eloquent about the ways in which Aurélien Bory works with geometry onstage, and it is perhaps this aesthetic elegance that suggested a collaboration with Chinese performers. Les Sept Planches has, in effect, a cast of 21: 14 are Beijing Opera practitioners from the city of Dalian, the other seven are huge blocks shaped like the pieces in the game of Tangram – “the seven boards of skill” from which this piece takes its title.
We first see these pieces lying flat on the stage, forming a rostrum from behind which the human performers slowly emerge to the accompaniment of a bowed erhu. They are pushed into new configurations, at first slowly and flat, as performers move along, around and on them, fall through a gap between pieces or occasionally seem to vanish into the “edge” of one. One by one, though, the pieces are moved into vertical configuration, revealed as triangles of varying sizes, a square, a parallelogram. They become landscapes: a vista of mountains, city blocks behind which we glimpse various movements, a row of air vents on a building’s roof. Men and women stand on them, move around and over them, are menaced by them when they seem to form a set of clashing animal or mechanical teeth.
When the pieces are combined into more complex vistas, these are seldom left static for more than a few seconds; as they are pushed together and apart, gravity is allowed to turn them from one side up on to another, and thus they appear to be taking part in the same kind of acrobatics as their human complement. People stand, sit, walk across triangular bridges above shifting crevasses, balance their way over delicately modulating alps… In effect, they are negotiating their way through an impermanent world, and Bory’s remark in the programme that “a game is a way of representing the world” is startlingly realised.
Four years ago, Bory’s Plan B astounded me on its visit to the London International Mime Festival, playing dazzling games with dimension and perspective. Les Sept Planches does the same with gravity, and does so with such skill and genius that even geometrical blocks seem to possess a grace of their own.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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