Respire: Contemporary Circus Aboard A Ship

For almost an hour, the Swiss-Italian Cie Circoncentrique duo stopped the time inside the hull of the Forman Brothers Theater ship. It wasn’t the type of contemporary circus where the audience fears for the lives of daring acrobats. Instead, it offered many opportunities to enjoy a good laugh and it was apparent that the two performers Alessandro Maida and Maxim Pythoud were very much enjoying the performance themselves.

The performance can be thought of as having three parts. Part one is dominated by gestures, facial expressions and partner work. The second part introduces props: juggling balls, a larger ball and, well, a very large ball. The final part is dominated by virtuoso acrobatics using a balance ball and the Cyr wheel at the same time.

The stage is almost bare. There are small lamps in the corners, a tall one in the back and another lamp hangs from the ceiling. There are white juggling balls lying in a corner. as the audience takes the seats, the artists are nonchalantly strolling in a circle. Slowly, the lights dim and the two acrobats start making first mutual contacts through partner floor acrobatics. The initial shy attempts for physical contacts turn into a comic series of obvious provocations mostly started by Maxim who seems more robust and, thanks to his unruly hair, also wilder. He focuses much of his energy into moving around the stage and provoking Alessandro who seems calmer and more balanced. Alessandro accepts his partner’s style of communication and a chase begins, full of acrobatic jumps, somersaults and partner acrobatics. As the tempo escalates, subtle music starts setting the beat and the suspense starts building up.

The rhythmical music contrasts with the surprising movements of the acrobats. In these numbers, breathing and emotions of the acrobats and the audience are become one, well in keeping with the fact that connection with the partner is the key to mastering all figures of partner acrobatics. As these demand a flawless harmony of the movement of the two bodies, the shared feeling is the basis for the safe realization of every move.

The audience enjoys the atmosphere of a performance in which acrobatic tricks come one after another. However, this isn’t a presentation of skills for their own sake. Every trick is perfectly integrated into a story of an encounter of two people.

The show isn’t based on an effort to impress the audience with acrobatic skills as humor is an equally important element. The performers create comic situations without needing to say single word. On of the recurring gags is Maxim triumphantly bringing endless arrays of circus props, one by one. As soon as Maxim disappears from the stage, suspense starts building up as the audience is eager to see what is it going to be next that Maxim brings to the stage to provoke his partner with.

The first minor conflict evolves slowly. Both performers calm down and start concentrating before the next number. Alessandro triumphantly finds his place but the snug smirk soon leaves his face as he starts feeling Maxim breathing on the back of his neck. This sets off a series of comic numbers in which the acrobats are trying to outdo each other. At times, the men start working together, but as soon as they remember they want to defeat each other, the cooperation is over.

After the opening partner acrobatics, Alessandro starts juggling with three balls. However, his performance is being disturbed by Maxim who makes everything possible to distract the juggler, make him drop the balls and draw all attention to himself. Although Alessandro is the master handler of all things ball shaped, Maxim provides excellent performance support and at the end of the performance, displays his own art in a long number with the Cyr wheel. Alessandro has most of the solo juggling numbers and Maxim perfectly complements him as an actor, comedian and a mime.

In some sequences, Maxim illuminates the almost child-like joy of Alessandro’s juggling using the intimate lights of two small point lamps creating remarkable images which are much more impressive than the bare, central lighting. The small lamps are among the number of props which come to life in the hands of he performers on various occasions throughout the performance, Their bendable necks, adjustable shades and on/off switch which can be thrown back and force at a rapid speed allow the lamps to become actual actors in several comic situations.

As the difficulty of the presented acrobatics increases, so does the size of the objects the acrobats handle. After the small juggling sacks, Maxim brings on a larger ball. In a comical fight for this new toy, the two performers are trying to outwit each other and steal the prop for themselves. In this scene, the harmony between the two performers becomes even more prominent than in the small-ball juggling numbers and the various juggling tricks are flagrant comic tools. It wasn’t so hard to guard the small balls once in Alessandro’s possession, but the larger ball is much more difficult to hide, so Alessandro explores various ways to keep Maxim from taking the desired object away from him. Maxim manages to steal the ball several times and as soon as he succeeds, he dashes away with it. But where do you run on a ship? Maxim resolves this conundrum by running fast in circles. Very effective. Alessandro didn’t catch him, because all he did was stand and watch Maxim’s dash to nowhere in disbelief. When Alessandro finally gets hold of the ball, Maxim leaves the stage and returns with an even larger ball – a balance ball – which Alessandro immediately mounts. To the sounds of a children’s xylophone, the acrobat balances atop the orb with the ease of a dream. This is the only time the music offers a clearly identifiable melody. Otherwise, the soundtrack is inconspicuous and mostly rhythm based. Alessandro returns to the small juggling balls which turn into restless imps which keep running off the stage. Alessandro’s juggling balls start literally dancing on the balance sphere and the way they are balanced on its top makes the audience breathless.

In the dim space, it is clear that the acrobats are able to perform all tricks and balance acts virtually without needing their eyesight. The sparse lighting isn’t the only obstacle, the performers must overcome as the space available to them isn’t the perfect stage for a contemporary circus performance and the acrobats had to adapt every movement to the small, vaulted hull-space of the ship where they performed literally within an arm’s reach of the spectators in the first row.

The final scene combines partner acrobatics and a number involving the Cyr-wheel and the balance ball in a paramount display of the acrobats‘ skills. Alessandro is zig-zagging around the rotating Cyr wheel on the balance ball avoiding collision with a flawless accuracy which is matched by Maxim’s aptitude in handling the Cyr wheel, which is an art which demands outstanding fitness, strength, balance and most importantly, the ability to consciously control every part of the body. Maxim obviously possesses all of these requisites and handles even vertically directed positions and configurations outside the axis of the rotating wheel.

Respire by Cie Circoncentrique mixes comic sketches, natural movement (walking, running) and acrobatics to create a consistent performance. Maxim and Alessandro proved themselves equally well in both acting and acrobatics, all with such natural ease as if there was no such thing as a difficult trick. The two seemingly inconspicuous acrobats excel at acrobatics, juggling, balance acts and creation of authentically comic contact situations.

The show brings a miscellany of small stories about human relationships but offers no deeper meaning. The fragments of human interactions and short comic numbers create a remarkable mosaic reminiscent of a silent-era movie slapstick, but there is no final meaning. The show doesn’t develop a story, instead, it escalates acrobatic tricks. As far as the artistry is concerned, the performance was absolutely flawless, but don’t expect to see a production which touches you in any deeper way. However, the show is very lovable and full of comedy.

Eliška Jílková

Cie Circoncentrique: Respire – Original Idea And Directed By: Alessandro Maida and Maxim Pythoud; Performers: Alessandro Maida and Maxim Pythoud; Location: Forman Brothers‘ Theater Ship; Date: September 18 and 19, 2012

photo: Cie Circoncentriqueadded: Oct. 7, 2012

The author studies Drama Theory at the Philosophical Faculty of the Charles University in Prague. The review was written within the “How To Write On Contemporary Circus” project for future journalists organized by Cirqueon.