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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Circa: Wunderkammer, Edinburgh Festival Fringe preview

Published in Edinburgh Festivals Magazine

IT'S AN hour before curtain up on the stage of Madrid's Teatro Circo Price. High up on a pole, an acrobat is balanced weightlessly, as if he's drifting in space. In his hand is a peacock's feather. He takes aim and propels it downwards. At floor level, another acrobat catches its stem on his forehead and balances it magically in the air. "That's my new favourite trick," he cries.

It's impressive stuff. And it’s not even in the show.

We're nearing the end of the lengthy exercises the seven performers of Australia's Circa go through before every performance of Wunderkammer. They start with notes from the previous night's show, get into gear with an hour-long warm-up, then try out fresh ideas for the evening's performance in their daily "show call". What this supple young bunch of athletes get up to even as they limber up – handstands, backflips, human pyramids, tricks with feathers – is an Olympian spectacle in itself.

Which is why it comes as something of a relief to discover their director is as much of a klutz as I am. "I can't even do a forward roll," I confess to Yaron Lifschitz as he draws on a post-show cigarette in the balmy Spanish air. "I've done one and I'm still recovering," he laughs. "I get to take out my own physical inadequacy on a bunch of people who aren't physically inadequate. That's a rare privilege and perhaps a sick enterprise!"

What sets Circa out from the new-circus pack, as those who saw its eponymous 2009 Fringe hit will attest, is Lifschitz's mixing of emotional depth with the performers' physical prowess. The company's mission statement is to move the heart, the mind and the soul. "Our work tries to make the audience feel something beyond wow and surprise and risk," he says. "It aims to be the expression of an emotion that doesn't yet have a name."

It's an approach that takes its toll on the company. "Last night after the show one of our performers was in tears – not because anything was wrong, just because it's really intense," says Freyja Edney, a whizz at the hula-hoop. "We've all been there. It's a show where you give so much that you affect your emotions in a profound way."

With the mood varying from free-floating poetry to dystopian chaos by way of whimsical comedy and tender interdependence, Wunderkammer often seems as much like a piece of exquisite modern dance as circus. Lifschitz, however, is careful to make the distinction. "The movement languages are drawn from circus, although we do use some techniques that are drawn from dance to modulate those languages " he says. "In dance, the movement is the thing, whereas here, I hope there's a sense of the performance and the people. At its core, these are highly skilled acrobats doing difficult, dangerous complex things."

Because so much rests on their agility and precision, the acrobats are central to the creation of the show, both in the routines they perform and in their night-by-night spontaneity. Costume designer Libby McDonnell says she never knows what outfits they will turn up in from scene to scene; they just grab whatever takes their fancy backstage. "Our working methods are based on a kind of jazz," says Lifschitz. "The performers are the authors of tonight's performance. Andy Warhol said that sex and parties were the two things you had to be there for: I'd add circus to that. It's created in front of you and the risks are real."

Performer Lewis West agrees: "You have to be in there feeling it and living it. The shows change. A scene might one day be happy if before the show you're feeling happy and one day might be more intense or have a harder edge. That keeps it real and fresh."

For the acrobats, it's a case of double exposure. In this "cabinet of wonders", they reveal themselves both emotionally and physically. In scene after scene, they remove their clothes, stripping off the layers as if to bare their souls. Jarred Dewey even manages to strip while perched precariously on a rope string. Just to mix things up, one of the others does a reverse striptease.

It means they get through a lot of clothes. McDonnell's costumes may be skimpy but they account for most of the production's excess baggage as it tours the world. "We play with the idea of how many ways you can strip," says West. "Sure, you can strip your clothes, but can you strip your identity, your emotions, your humanity? Can you strip off a singlet ten times and mean a different thing each time?"

It's an open-ended question. Lifschitz, meanwhile, has a more fundamental reason for seeing Wunderkammer: "Circus for me is simply a place in which the performers do stuff that mortals can't do."

Circa: Wunderkammer
Underbelly, 31 July–26 August (not 7, 13, 20), 5pm
From £12, Tel: 0844 545 8252

© Mark Fisher 2013

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