Theatre is now no stranger to circus-based shows and The Peacock has offered plenty over the years. Invariably, companies like Cirkus Cirkör and The 7 Fingers (currently touring the UK with their show, Passagers) are ensembles of circus artists in shows that are based around their skills with a nod and a wink towards dance theatre. Motionhouse – the company based in Leamington Spa that was formed in 1988 by Louise Richards and Kevin Finnan – is unique in coming towards circus from the other direction of dance first and, consequently, it tends towards a more holistic theatrical experience instead of wrapping the Cyr wheel, teeterboard and juggling specialities within the artifice of a proscenium envelope.
Finnan’s latest show, Nobody, held its world premiere in London ahead of a 25-venue European tour and it continues his trademark style of spectacular visual entertainment, fuelled by an integration of projected animations and athletic, acrobatic dance. These seven performers (five from the UK and two from Barcelona) are the tough end of the dance profession, combining the upper body strength of Olympic gymnasts, the intense close harmony of their synchronised swimming colleagues with the flow and flexibility of elite dancers.
Recently commissioned to transform Birmingham’s Centenary Square for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, Finnan is a master of creating choreography in big outdoor spaces and he brings a flavour of that scale to his theatre-based shows by elevating the performance space upwards into the proscenium. Had Bill Forsythe not already appropriated the title, the sentiment of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated would easily apply to this show. Motionhouse’s dancer-acrobats built people towers, performed high-bar swinging routines (with the bars often moving while they performed) and injury-defying leaps from height, requiring complete trust that their team would be there to catch them. That everything seemed to work as it should was belied at the curtain call when one of the performers ran offstage to fetch a towel to staunch the bleeding from her nose! Finnan has said that his dancers need to be ‘brave and bold’ and that assertion is quite clear on the evidence of this show.
The skills are breath-taking enough, but it is the excellence that the audience takes for granted that is the glue which pulls it altogether. There are no Cyr wheels or teeterboards but there is a giant tubular box, the size of a small house, and several moveable platforms that the seven performers must manhandle into place as well as perform around, in and above. This is not just stagehand stuff because these important aspects of the stage design must always be placed in perfect harmony with the animations that are projected onto them. I assumed that this was all achieved by interactive technology and was amazed to discover that it is done by the time-honoured dancers’ skill in counts! So, not only do the performers exhibit perfect trust in one another in the pinpoint accuracy of their often-dangerous routines but – at the same time – they were having to move the “furniture” in pinpoint harmony with the animations.
The animations presented urban landscapes from perspectives that varied from wide-angled cityscapes filled with skyscrapers to the intimacy of a two-storey domestic house but it was a vision cluttered by a vast murder of crows. There were animated crows everywhere: sash windows opened, and a crow flew out, many times over. It seems that each performer was both a human character and a crow. In a cluttered first act, the animations – coupled with the extreme noise of a bespoke score, composed by Tim Dickinson and Sophy Smith – tended to overwhelm the human part of the performance. These extraneous elements were pared back for the second half and the organic flow of Finnan’s choreography was refreshingly free of distraction and all the better for it.
Nobody is full of exciting and highly-charged moments of extreme skill, liberally sprinkled with arresting dance but nonetheless it remains a challenge to keep that momentum at a consistent level and there were lulls in the level where it was hard for this audience member to keep up the concentration. This was not helped by the sensory overload in the audible and visual assault of the first act.