Up and at them

Grav­ity & Other Myths meld skill and strength with grace and beauty in their ‘ground-based’ ap­proach to the art of cir­cus ac­ro­bat­ics

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY DEIRDRE FALVEY

High-fly­ing cir­cus troupe Grav­ity & Other Myths is com­ing to Gal­way

In a for­mer slaugh­ter­house in the north of Prague, there is a bit of grunt­ing go­ing on. Af­ter ad­mir­ing the beauty and skill of what’s hap­pen­ing, the first thing that strikes is: this is risky busi­ness. Later we come to un­der­stand more about the man­aged edges of dan­ger in this stretch­ing of the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of hu­man bod­ies.

The lights are trained on 10 or so strong, able women and men who are do­ing a warm-up for tonight’s open­ing of Back­bone in Prague, and some tricks for Czech TV, with a pow­er­ful sound­track from two mu­si­cians. It looks not so much a warm-up as a mus­cu­lar, tele­path­i­cally co-or­di­nated cre­ation of a se­ries of jaw-drop­ping mov­ing tableaux.

This is the Aus­tralian troupe Grav­ity & Other Myths in ac­tion, a com­pany of ac­ro­batic cre­ativ­ity on an ex­tended tour of Europe – and at the up­com­ing Gal­way In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val – with its vig­or­ous cir­cus ensem­ble.

We’re in Jatka78, home of Cirk La Pu­tyka, an ac­claimed cir­cus com­pany in the Czech Repub­lic, who four years ago cre­ated this airy, high-ceilinged per­for­mance space and lounge with an ap­peal­ing and at­mo­spheric dis­tressed aes­thetic. Its 100-year his­tory as a slaugh­ter­house was trans­formed, with a lot of work and sup­port, into this cre­ative hub (an in­spi­ra­tion for what can hap­pen when a city makes space avail­able to artists). Their 4,000sq m in the mar­ket in Holešovice now hosts in­ter­na­tional per­for­mances as well as Cirk La Pu­tyka’s own shows, and we’re watch­ing 12 Aussies who have been mak­ing a name for them­selves in “ground-based” new cir­cus ac­ro­bat­ics, where ev­ery­thing they do in the show is bol­stered from the ground (as op­posed to sup­port­ing the weight from on high). No trapeze or high-wire here; this is per­son-based, with lots of props.

The name Grav­ity & Other Myths is not for noth­ing: the per­form­ers reach for the sky as they tum­ble, fly and som­er­sault. The show plays with the no­tion of back­bone or strength, throw­ing around ideas of what that is in a se­ries of vig­or­ous vi­gnettes that joy­fully – and with vis­ual beauty – push the lim­its of hu­man ca­pa­bil­ity, and the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of the ensem­ble.

The warm-up in­volves ac­tual ex­er­cises, but also the prac­tice of throw­ing – lit­er­ally – one per­son to an­other, like a game of vig­or­ous catch with a body as ball. There is a lot of grunt­ing, ef­fort and care. When the lights come up on the show that night, there’s all this skill but with added the­atri­cal­ity. So in per­for­mance there are set-pieces us­ing large stones

and pack­ing boxes and cos­tume rails and gravel and buck­ets (and ac­ro­bat­ics with those buck­ets on heads – so they’re do­ing tricks blind). It is strong, con­fi­dent and pacy, with con­trast­ing qui­eter mo­ments. All this is not done ef­fort­lessly – you see the work, you hear the cues, grunts and words be­tween the play­ers, you see the sweat. They do not have mag­i­cal power and are not made of rub­ber.

Ja­cob Ran­dell, a Grav­ity & Other Myths founder-di­rec­tor and one of the ac­ro­bats, chats for a bit, then flies off to warm-up, and we ar­range to talk again af­ter the show.

The troupe is tour­ing two shows in rep through to the mid­dle of next year: Back­bone (usu­ally 10 ac­ro­bats and two mu­si­cians – but there can be a bit of jug­gling with roles if one is away or re­cov­er­ing from in­jury) and A Sim­ple Space (seven ac­ro­bats and a mu­si­cian), in Europe – from Nor­way to Bel­gium to Latvia – with some Cana­dian and US dates too.

Five of the orig­i­nal seven founders still per­form with the troupe (one of the founders is now an ac­tor and the other has a physio and yoga busi­ness). It was founded in 2009 by a bunch of pals who had been to CirKidz school in Ade­laide to­gether, with oth­ers join­ing them along the way.

Youth cir­cus cul­ture

There is, it seems, a youth cir­cus cul­ture in Aus­tralia, which an­other founder-di­rec­tor El­liott Zo­erner de­scribes as at­tract­ing “peo­ple who want to be ac­tive and cre­ative, rather than join­ing a sports club, which is more com­pet­i­tive, or join­ing a drama school, which is just the cre­ative side”.

Aus­tralia’s new cir­cus folk gather and learn and net­work at big cir­cus fes­ti­vals in Tas­ma­nia and in western Aus­tralia, with per­for­mances and work­shops. Circa, from Bris­bane, paved the way for Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary cir­cus; as did Ca­sus, also big on the same in­ter­na­tional scene.

Grav­ity & Other Myths’ ground-up con­tem­po­rary cir­cus style melds the skill and strength of their tricks with grace and beauty, of­ten with a hu­mor­ous touch. Back­bone takes the form of a se­ries of elab­o­rate, vig­or­ous games be­tween friends, and is about strength. But it also points up the pre­car­i­ous­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of hu­mans, and how strong bonds and in­ter­de­pen­dency can cre­ate strength.

The pals from cir­cus school made their first show, Freefall, when they were 18 and 19. While some had planned a cir­cus ca­reer, for oth­ers it was more ac­ci­den­tal – three of them “in­ter­rupted” en­gi­neer­ing at univer­sity when they started to take off in­ter­na­tion­ally. That hap­pened when they took A Sim­ple Space to the Ed­in­burgh Fringe in 2013, and it was picked up by an agent, who has since sched­uled their busy tours. That agent is Aurora Nova, the Ber­lin com­pany set up by dancer and theatre maker – and one-time Dublin Fringe Fes­ti­val di­rec­tor – Wolf­gang Hoff­mann.

One of those would-be en­gi­neers was Mar­tin Schreiber, a “four-high base”; he’s the big­gest and strong­est-look­ing of a pretty strong lot, and that job ti­tle means he spe­cialises as the bot­tom of a hu­man tower of four peo­ple per­form­ing while stand­ing on each other’s shoul­ders.

Zo­erner, an­other al­most-en­gi­neer, joined his pals’ troupe and ran away with the cir­cus, as res­i­dent com­poser and mu­si­cian. He plays drums and per­cus­sion, writes elec­tronic mu­sic for the show and does sound de­sign. He plays with Shenzo Gre­go­rio on key­boards, vi­ola and loop­ing sta­tion (and some­time ac­ro­batic un­der­study).

Grav­ity & Other Myths have toured al­most con­tin­u­ally since that Ed­in­burgh break, and they en­joy the new cir­cus life­style, says Zo­erner. “I’ve spent a year trav­el­ling while work­ing and get­ting paid for it. It’s a great way to travel. You have a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence to be­ing a tourist. You live on the road, see in­ter­est­ing places along the way and meet peo­ple in a more gen­uine way – theatre techies and peo­ple who come to your show.”

It’s a big group on the road now, with 12 per­form­ers, a few part­ners and a light­ing and tech­ni­cal per­son, while their gen­eral man­ager op­er­ates from Ade­laide.

Dis­ci­pline and train­ing are cru­cial, but trust is clearly cen­tral in this. As we watch the warm-up to­gether, Zo­erner says they have to be able to sec­ond-guess each other for it to work.

“If some­one is go­ing to do some­thing and you don’t trust them, the tricks are go­ing to fail. For ex­am­ple, when a flyer is about to get caught by some­body, if they have an en­gaged body – keep­ing their mus­cles tight and stay­ing still in the air – it makes them eas­ier to catch. It’s more like catch­ing a solid ob­ject: it’s pre­dictable and eas­ier for the bases to catch. Whereas if they’re mov­ing around and panicking, it makes it re­ally hard be­cause the bases can’t see where they’re go­ing to go. The smartest thing for fly­ers to do, even if they think they are go­ing to fall, is to be still in the air and to get into a good po­si­tion to be caught.”

This all sounds ter­ri­fy­ing. El­liott laughs and agrees: “It’s a bit scary. It’s hard to do. That’s why they’re so good.”

But it is risky. There are no nets or har­nesses. Most in­juries, says Zo­erner, don’t come from acute things but from us­ing mus­cles over time, and the gen­eral stress of do­ing an ac­ro­batic show daily. Al­though as we chat a col­league is at the ho­tel (“it’s tough to watch a show you want to be part of”) re­cov­er­ing from a back in­jury a cou­ple of weeks ago, “we don’t get many in­juries. This is the first time some­one has been out of this show in a year and a half.”

They use safety lines to prac­tise the big­gest tricks each day, es­pe­cially the four-high. The process for this in­volves putting the top per­son in a har­ness, and hav­ing them in lines. Once that’s com­fort­able you take them out of the lines and do it with­out. The rou­tine is daily, to keep skills up but also to keep the play­ers com­fort­able.

“Ob­vi­ously there is a lot of trust. If a trick isn’t feel­ing com­fort­able, it’s bad for the trick. It’s a vi­cious cy­cle. So hav­ing the lines there when prac­tis­ing is some­what to test the waters to see ev­ery­one is good to do it, and also to get to the stage [where] ‘That felt easy, we didn’t need the help of the lines. We’ll do it again with­out.’ ”

It’s “not as risky as a lot of sport, be­cause in sport what’s go­ing to hap­pen is so un­pre­dictable. But in this, or any cir­cus show, the idea is you know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. There are some im­pro­vised bits, but they know to be very care­ful with each other. Where it is planned, they know what’s hap­pen­ing, and for the dan­ger­ous tricks they have peo­ple un­der­neath sup­port­ing them to make sure that if some­thing does go wrong there are plenty of peo­ple there to catch some­body.”

Fo­cused per­for­mance

Later that night, watch­ing Back­bone, you re­alise this is un­ob­tru­sively hap­pen­ing all the time: while a per­former is on high, their col­leagues are at­ten­tively look­ing up, watch­ful, care­ful. Aside from the beauty and hu­mour and skill, this is a very fo­cused per­for­mance.

And then, al­most im­per­cep­ti­bly, some­thing has hap­pened. As if part of the per­for­mance, some play­ers grav­i­tate to­wards Ja­cob Ran­dell, some touch­ing his arm in con­cern. You re­alise he has been hurt, but it seemed part of the flow of the show. Then, an­other slight move­ment by the play­ers, and you re­alise Ran­dell is no longer on­stage. The re­main­der of the show closes seam­lessly over his pres­ence, and one trick is skipped. He doesn’t ap­pear for the (en­thu­si­as­tic) cur­tain call.

Later we learn it was a bone in­jury (“there was a bit of a dent in my shoul­der from the sub­lux”). A cou­ple of weeks later his shoul­der is slowly get­ting there but he is still not per­form­ing – “Get­ting on the re­hab hard now, so hope­fully not too much longer”.

Ren­dell is look­ing for­ward to Gal­way, though he’s not sure if he’ll be per­form­ing by then. It’s a re­minder of how, even with great skill and care, sail­ing close to the wind is still push­ing the bound­aries.

Back­bone is at the Gal way In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val, July 17 th-21st, Bai­ley Allen Hall, NU I G. ¤20-¤29. giaf.ie

The show also also points up the pre­car­i­ous­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity of hu­mans, and how strong bonds and in­ter­de­pen­dency can cre­ate strength

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: CAR­NI­VAL CIN­EMA

Fly­ing high: Grav­ity & Other Myths bring their ac­ro­batic show Back­bone to Gal­way.

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