When I was a child in England, circus was a big event. There were three large shows on the road with their bright lights, wild animals and Big Tops.
There was a fairly fixed pattern for the clowns and acrobats who would work through the summer with the circus and for the rest of the year would appear in variety or pantomime. But circus became less popular, animal acts became unacceptable, variety all but died out and pantomime specialty acts became a thing of the past, replaced by questionable celebrities-off-the-telly. Circus went through a very rough patch but in recent years has re-emerged with more emphasis on skilled performers and less on clowns and animals.
Circuses used to be very closed shops, family affairs where skills and acts were handed down through generations. But things have changed, a middle ground between theatre and circus has been established and circus skills have become “legitimate”. The resulting shows have established a new theatre genre and dozens of schools have been established around the world, either in their own right or as a department of existing performance arts schools. One such is Codarts in Rotterdam and eleven of their third year students were onstage at the Korzo last night with their show A Beautiful Mess, directed by Lucho Smit.
This wasn’t just a showcase for their individual skills, this was very much an ensemble piece with a narrative, of sorts, running through it. It was pure theatre and very good theatre at that. The theme was inter-dependence, trust and our perception of reality.
The performers were on stage as the audience entered, blindfolded and playing blind man’s buff (the performers, of course, not the audience). There was a lot of pretending to be sheep which I didn’t quite get and a lot of blindfolds throughout the evening. Everything was linked and part of the whole, you certainly didn’t get the feeling that everyone was just coming on and doing their turn. The show was a series if cameos, some of which highlighted individual skills, but they were done in a way which very much involved the ensemble, to a greater or lesser degree, and the speciality acts were seamlessly integrated into the context of the show. But there were also sequences which did not involve specific skills and were just beautifully original, clever and usually very funny. There were moments of pure surrealism and there were times when I was reminded of Fellini’s La Strada.
Unfortunately there was no programme or information sheet, which was a pity, so I cannot identify individuals – but as this was so much a team effort it would perhaps be unkind to do so.
The same applies to the various sequences, which were all brilliant, but there were a couple that I particularly enjoyed. There was surreal meal-time sequence with a blind-folded man wearing a fur coat in a wheel-chair being fed grapes and wine by five girls using only their feet – one was standing on her hands on the table while another was dangling above it. Hilarious and, as you can imagine, a beautiful mess.
In another sequence, a trapeze was lowered to just a meter or so above the stage as a headless dwarf concealed in an old raincoat tottered towards it. It was like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting. The unseeing hands groped for the trapeze which was tantalisingly just out of reach until finally, grasping it, the figure discarded the coat like a chrysalis to reveal, not quite a butterfly, but an elegant and accomplished routine.
The word “circus” conjures up images which in no way apply to what was happening in A Beautiful Mess and other shows/troupes presenting similar work. I think the word would even put some people off with their preconceptions of gaudy glitter, sawdust and red-nosed clowns. What has been created here, and not just by Codarts, is a completely new performance medium which is much more than just the presentation of individual skills and it is one that I find very satisfying and exhilarating. What it does share with traditional circus is the excitement and anticipation of what will be coming on next.
This is the second time I have seen students from Codarts perform in the past few weeks and I must say I am very impressed indeed.
The second show at the Korzo last night was Memo, created by Zinzi Oegema and performed by her and Evertjan Mercier. This was a strange piece which got off to a slow start with Mr Mercier talking to the audience. The problem with this strategy is that if the audience is not fully engaged, the interaction falls very flat and problems ensue. For me, speech never sits very comfortably in a dance event and it is usually a mistake to think it does.
Memo was about the fraught, often violent relationship between the two performers and involved quite a lot of time where not much was happening or when it did, was not very interesting. There was some clever and effective use of swinging lights but generally the concept and direction needed some work.
However, when they got down to the nitty-gritty their balancing skills drew gasps from the audience. And this was an audience that knew what it was gasping about as many of the Codarts people were there. There were feats of balancing that I have never seen before and one at least that would, had it gone wrong, have resulted in certain death when Zinzi was thrown high into a triple somersault and caught plummeting head first, a few centimeters from the floor. The balancing skills were breath-taking and truly astounding, the concept and execution of the performance as a whole, slightly less so. Michael Hasted 24th March 2018