Some of the routines and feats that Gravity & Other Myths, an Australian physical theater company, create, can be described as such: creating an upside down human ice cream cone by stacking people three high on each other's shoulders, tossing humans like they're fish in a Hell's Kitchen fish market, or balancing a person by their spine on a 10 foot pole so they look as if they're impaled by a spear on the battlefield by the armies of Gaul. So, yeah, physical theater, the combination of acrobatics, tests of strength, and circus, can be fairly physically demanding.
"There was also that time that Rankin cut off that other guy's head with the sword," says Darcy Grant, director of the company's newest work, Backbone.
Despite the truth of a plate mail clad, sword wielding character appearing in Gravity & Other Myths' show, the decapitation part might be a bit of hyperbole. However, suspending someone by their head like a keystone in the top of a two person high human archway is no exaggeration.
"We were lucky to have someone brave enough to try on either side of her skull," Grant says. "Luckily her brain didn't get squashed and she can still say her alphabet."
But how in the hell does a group go about creating such testaments to muscle and dexterity? For Gravity & Other Myths, their show Backbone has been a couple years in the works. With it, they've pushed the bounds of their art form and their previously understood limits of skull fortitude.
"[Backbone] came from really two or three years of touring the same thing to wanting to try new things," explains Lachlan Binns, a founding company member and acrobat, "just trying things and exploring things."
Backbone began a number of years ago while the troupe was on tour with their previous performance, A Simple Space. During that time, creation sessions were had to plan out moves and routines with the members. Grant, an acrobat himself, came on to help in the process. It took about 10 weeks in total to come up with the moves that would make up their latest endeavor. Those sessions culminated in an unusually long block of time provided by financial backing for the story-making endeavor and the solidifying of Backbone. During that time the physical risks of hurling each other around and straining sinews to their max became a factor in the development of the new show: Broken thumbs and pulled groins had to be overcome.
"It forced us to create a different way," say Jascha Boyce, a performer and founder of Gravity & Other Myths, "and to make sure we took all the right steps to stay safe but at the same time focus on the creative side of things. [Injuries] actually formed some interesting things in the show."
Part of that creative drive is understanding and advancing the moves which form the basis of Gravity & Other Myths' work. To Binns, that process of innovation is something that their group has gotten pretty good at it.
"The way we do it, it keeps driving forward and never stops," Binns says. "It's this continuous flow of moves that seems endless and constantly escalates into something bigger and more impressive."
One move in particular that demonstrates this dedication to furthering their art form is what's known as swinging, described thusly by Boyce as "two bases throw a flyer and swing a flyer all around the space." Usually this is done for five minutes by a typical contemporary circus act. Gravity & Other Myths hold out for fifteen minutes with this arduous human volleying. That fits in with the trajectory of Backbone. It's an all-around explosion of a production from their previous work, A Simple Space.
"I wanted to call [Backbone] A Very Complicated Space," says Craig Harrison, the show's producer. "It's so much bigger, bolder, and brassier. There's just so much more to it. All the performers and the creators came to it with much more maturity. It was four or five years since they made their last show ... [Backbone] is an absolute triumph for where they're at in their individual and collective lives."
Part of the expanding production is a new score that goes along with Backbone. It's one of the unique qualities of Gravity & Other Myths; the group performs with music being made live from loop pedals, violins, keys, percussion, and all sorts of instrumentation that two musicians can wrangle into their grasp. The music enhances the experience for the audience and performers.
"There's really no comparison to performing to live music," Boyce says. "Once you've performed with live music you don't want to go back. It's like a conversation that constantly happens on stage."
At the heart of Backbone though, is its theme — strength. "What it is, where it comes from, and how it's measured," the company says about its strength. They aren't being trite. This motif transcends the physical aspect of strength, and it also helps to explain why Backbone features a knight wielding a sword on stage.
Backbone explores "What it's like to be strong for another person, not necessarily physically but in terms of being able to support them through things," Grant says. "We examine female strength with that being, how you want to interpret it, as maternal or otherwise. We also look at strength ironically, hence the suit of armor."