Near a café I like to visit in Saigon’s First District, I sometimes spot two Cambodian kids, brothers of about 6 and 8, who are performers of the old-school style. Dressed in garish, spangled, handmade costumes at once too big and too small, they specialize in the classic sideshow arts: fire-breathing, snake-swallowing, hot-coal-eating, and the like. All of it punctuated with standing backflips and other acrobatics, which performed on the side of a motorbike-packed street in Saigon is a death-defying act in itself. After a typical ten-minute sidewalk show, they walk through the seated café crowd soliciting tips. I’m always tempted to give them a big bill, something special for the effort, but I’m worried one of them will try to staple it to his forehead for an encore.
I was reminded of these boys last night at the Spoleto premiere for the Australian group Circa, which calls its physical style of performance art “a celebration of the expressive possibilities of the human body at its extremes.” Their show comprises its own category in the Spoleto program guide — “Circus Arts” — as it clearly defies easy categorization into any of the others, though it flirts with many. Acrobatics, theater, gymnastics, breakdancing, mime, freakshow, muscle-man contest, and yes, circus. One may as well include the cheerleading arts, for all the tossing, pitching, and catapulting the seven sculpted members of Circa do to each other.
The show, which has no listed name other than that of the group itself, runs through eight short scenes, all of them wordless, many of them performed to an eclectic selection of music — Cake, Sigur Rós, Nine Inch Nails, ambient techno, French café music, and what sounded like a Radiohead cover by Tori Amos. Often they took place in complete silence. These extraordinary scenes were linked by a narrative thread that suggested bodies that were not in the control of their owners, as if the eyes and minds of these actors were bolted on to automatons made of silly putty and steel which operate independently of their owners. Beneath this was a motif that surfaced repeatedly: the need for physical contact and touch, which all too often is unfulfilled or rejected.
The result was a marvel visually, intellectually, and theatrically. Circa excels at flashy acrobatics — three men standing atop each other’s shoulders, a girl spinning seven steel hoops, the seven artists hurling each other around the room like ragdolls. But they also make the most of small, carefully acted moments, as when one man, who looked as if he’d just walked off the cover of Men’s Fitness, used two fingers to narrative a wordless story, in total silence, of a man walking down his arm. It was how a father might perform for a child, if the father then went on to do a handstand on the two fingers.
In a canny scene near the show’s end, one of the men lay on the floor in a rectangular frame of light the size of a double bed. When a woman emerged onto the stage wearing a pair of stiletto-heeled red shoes, the audience gasped. We knew what was coming. On the same stage where Kneehigh Theatre’s Red Shoes become an instrument of torture and mutilation for their owner, another pair of red shoes were used to no less harrowing effect, but the result here was a nuanced metaphor for how we so often hurt the ones we love the most. We bend, we pull, we poke and throw and push and mangle, but they accept it, they keep coming back asking for more. As we all do. More please. Oh yes, more. More.