Circus Athletes at Mlejn

In the first half of November, Cirkus Mlejn presented the premier of its new contemporary-circus performance entitled Dynamo created in cooperation with external Czech and Swiss acrobats under the direction of Finnish director and choreographer Ilona Jäntti. The show is a humorous exploration of the relationship of sports and various art disciplines undertaken in a series of sketches which combine dance with aerial and floor acrobatics. The result is an entertaining, albeit sometimes inconsistent, spectacle which leaves us with the question what was the actual artistic intent of its authors.

The performance opens with an acrobatic number which directly takes on the director’s main source of inspiration for Dynamo: the sports photography by soviet avant-garde photographer and artist Alexander Rodchenko whose photographs exhibit dynamic composition and often also unusual camera angles.

In complete darkness, Josef Toman enters the stage dressed in a white leotard with a quick pace and a stiff facial expression. He swings up on a trapeze and starts exercising on it. His rapid entrance and nimble motion in the air is slowed down by the optical illusion brought on by strobe light, as if the athlete was being illuminated by photographic flashes. Meanwhile, there are stars projected on the backdrop of the stage reminiscent of the painted night sky often found under the summit of circus tents. The circus tone of this opening sequence sets up a framework for the rest of the performance which is composed of various short numbers and sketches which can be perceived as snapshots of various kinds of sports or photographs which document a single moment of an athlete’s performance. The structure of Dynamo actually bears a strong resemblance to a classical circus show which is composed of unrelated numbers and audience applause is expected in between.

Neither the strobe light nor the projection of the night sky make another appearance in Dynamo. Instead, its authors keep pouring in more and more new ideas in a stream which carries away any element which could interconnect the individual parts of the performance and make it more comprehensible.

Still, there are many sequences where the performers fulfill their goal of seeking the intersection of art and sports to perfection, such as the scene which alludes to gymnastics competitions: Two pairs of acrobats take turns inside a circle of yellow light on an otherwise empty stage presenting their choreographies while the incoming pair always starts its spotlight number in the pose the previous couple ended with. A similar sequence in a different part of the performance has Jonáš Janků dance in a space outlined by a square of light. Another humorous sketch taking place at the intersection of art and sports is an athletic event which, when started, turns out to be a dramatic hand-walking race.

These and other sequences of the spectacle are interspersed with comic numbers in which especially the female members of the cast excel. For example, Eliška Brtnická and Jana Klimová perform an acrobatic clown number on the trapeze in which one puts on a merciless facial expression and forces the other to do acrobatic tricks by pulling her by her braided hair. The manipulated acrobat occasionally manages to take revenge by using her braid to seemingly accidentally smacking the manipulator in the face. In a different number, both acrobats wind their hair on the trapeze bar to the sound of slapstick-comedy music while moving up and down along the trapeze and around it. Eliška Brtnická is the star of the performance. She is featured in the vast majority of the numbers, excels in dance and acrobatics both on the floor and in the air, and also stands out as an actress.

The central duo of clowns in Dynamo consists of Swiss acrobats Stéphanie N´Duhirahe and Morgane Widmer. They first enter the stage as two frisky girls, Morgane climbs up a silk while Stéphanie is watching her back on the ground. The are whispering to each other in French like children who are up to no good and know it: “Ça va? Ça va?” As the lights dim and music changes to a quiet, lyrical mood, the humorous situation turns into an impressive acrobatic number on the silk. The couple creates motionless images as if posing to be photographed. Then the mood switches again and the acrobats turn the silk into a children’s swing. Morgane then goes on to play with the silk on the floor, she gets tangled up in it and examines it curiously. Finally, she decides to leave the stage, Stéphanie follows her and accidentally steps on the silk Morgane is tangled in, creating the central gag of the spectacle: Morgane is pulling the silk and hauling Stéphanie with it. Stéphanie is first surprised, but then she starts enjoying the silk ride and making flamboyant poses. Later in the show, the duo repeats and develops this gag several times. In short interludes, they cross the stage pulling and riding the stage in various positions, e. g., in a headstand or scattering gold sequins in a monumental stance with legs planted wide apart.

Nevertheless, not every scene in Dynamo is as effective as those described above or builds up to a clear climax. For instance, there is a number in which Josef Toman monotonously juggles three rings on an empty stage and when the acrobats arrive for the next scene, he just leaves the stage without giving any meaning to his act. One of the more visually dominant scenes of the spectacle ends in a similarly pointless way: Four women enter the stage on by one eliciting laughter from the audience with their ridiculously snug facial expressions, stiff walk and absurdly glittery golden outfits. Then, the atmosphere changes with the use of lighting and and classical music. Each acrobat climbs her own silk and all four perform synchronous acrobatics. The music and visual elements keep building up suspense and the audience expects a surprising finale. However, no stunning climax ever comes, the acrobats descend back to the ground and leave. Their golden costumes remain unexplained as they never reappear in the show in the rest of which all performers wear white t-shirts and shorts reminiscent of outfits of Soviet athletes from Rodchenko’s photographs or vintage physical-education uniforms. Just as the almost bare stage is only transformed using clever details, the acrobats never modify their costumes beyond putting on shirts of different colors.

Apart from the clear stylization of scenes inspired by concrete sports, the athletic atmosphere of the show is evoked by a bench for acrobats who are not performing at the moment located on the side of the arena.

An innovative design element comes in the form of a projection of mingling blurs of Czech national colors which appears in the background of a scene reminiscent of a gymnastics competition concluded by the entire acrobatic team rejoicing at their performances. However, the entire spectacle leaves a mixed impression. The director and the stage designer (Japanese DAMU graduate Yumi Hayashi) strive to make the individual scenes visually impressive, yet they only use projections and animations very sparsely without a clear reason why some sequences contain these elements and others don’t.

In Dynamo, Ilona Jäntti emphasizes teamwork, training and cooperation which are important factors in many sports and many contemporary-circus arts. However, the second essential link between (some) sports and circus – the fear induced in the audience by the audacity of the performers and the associated suspense – is left mostly unexplored.

Dynamo oscillates between a humorous and visually appealing spectacle on one hand and a piece of movement theater aiming to thoroughly explore the borderline between sports and art on the other. However, neither of these intentions is fully consummated. Dynamo lacks a clearly defined framework and leaves the audience fumbling for the meaning of a miscellany of diverse numbers. Still, Dynamo is a rich and colorful performance and a definite reason to pay Mlejn a visit.

Aneta Pavlíčková

Cirkus Mlejn: Dynamo – director: Ilona Jäntti, choreography: Ilona Jäntti and Cirkus Mlejn, stage design: Yumi Hayashi, animation: Naoki Tani and Jan Mikota, graphic design: Mirka Hrdinová, lighting design: Vlado Veleta, production: Dagmar Roubalová, Eva Sílová, performers: Klára Hajdinová, Jana Klimová, Eliška Brtnická, Stéphanie N’Duhirahe, Morgane Widmer, Jonáš Janků, Josef Toman

photograph: KD Mlejn

added on Nov. 14, 2012

The author is a student of theatrology at the School of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague. This article was written for Cirqueon’s “Writing On Contemporary Circus” educational project for students of journalism.