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Spoleto 2013 » Theater

Le Grand C is simple but stunning

A Towering Success

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It's hard to know where to look when there are more than a dozen acrobats on stage climbing up onto each other's shoulders, sliding back down, and throwing each other around like sacks of potatoes. We never got an exact count of how many people are in Compagnie XY's Le Grand C because they were constantly scurrying around, on, and off the stage. But we think it's close to 17.

Friday's show at the Memminger started quietly with a darkened stage, ominous music, and slow pacing. It felt a bit like the beginning of a murder mystery, but then they created their first human tower, three people tall. It's something they did frequently throughout the show, but it never felt tired or monotonous.

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In fact, the show is really just a long series of the same well-choreographed stunts: Tumbling, towering, and tossing. Yet there are subtle variations and a slow ramping up of the danger factor that keep the crowd engaged. After the first three-person tower, a muscular guy stands on a pixie-ish girl's shoulders, then another girl stands on top of a guy's head, then they go four-people tall, and so on.

There's no narrative here, but everything is carefully planned out and choreographed, making the whole feel cohesive. It doesn't take long for the performers' personalities to come out, adding to our investment in the show. There's the guy with his hair in a bun who's built like an ox — he's obviously one of the strongest members of the troupe, always on the bottom of the stack, always smiling (and once even singing, albeit weakly, as three people climbed onto his shoulders). There are the flirty girls who are as strong as they are sweet-looking, and the older gray-haired man with a friendly face who surprises us later in the show by serving as a base of another human tower.

There's a strong sense of camaraderie that's really charming to watch. When we interviewed the cast of Le Grand C, they said that they don't use a safety net because they are the safety net. You could see it every time they pulled a dangerous stunt, and the extra performers formed a protective barrier, carefully watching with concern, hands up, ready to catch anyone should something go wrong. We only noticed one toss go awry, and the safety net worked, though the look of worry and relief on the performers' faces was real. This just added to the drama of the show, reminding us of how dangerous these stunts are, as effortless as they sometimes make them look. Though we actually preferred to see the pain on their faces, their bodies shaking with the effort. Call us sadists, but those are the moments when we really held our breath.

Suspense is a big part of this show, and the music and lighting go a long way toward creating that suspense. The lights are low and the stage full of shadows for some of the most dramatic stunts, and sometimes the music even ceases altogether. You could have heard a pin drop when that happened (or someone's vibrating cell phone). As the energy level rises, so do the lights, and the traditional French music gets more lively. It's at these moments that the performers' sense of humor comes out, indulging in a bit of physical comedy that allows them to rest between stunts.

And by the end of the show, you could see their fatigue, their clothes drenched in sweat. But they'll rally and get back on stage today, and almost every day through June 1, and we're even thinking of going to see them again. Because when there's just so much going on, and so many things to notice, every show promises to be a little bit different.

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