If I opened this review by saying that the circus was no longer just about lions and tigers and women in sparkly leotards, the well-established contemporary circus scene would probably send a hit squad of acrobats to do away with me. Because over the past few decades, groups like France’s Compagnie XY have been busy remodelling circus into something sleeker, chic-er and cliché-free. And their newest performance ‘It’s Not Yet Midnight’ is a shining example of what that looks like. At its opening, a surging, 22-strong troupe dressed in casual Friday-ready chinos and blouses spill out across the stage, like office workers on a pre-weekend bender. Except this grey-clad horde can bend, tumble, pull wild shapes and – most of all – create multi-storey human towers fit to marvel at.
These towers provide the performance’s pinnacles of excitement – especially when they link together into a vast double-decker ring that subsides, gradually, into a writhing mass of bodies. Or when four women clamber up onto each other’s shoulders, in defiance of the men-on-the-bottom, women-on-the-top circus traditions.
But it’s the bits in-between the endless succession of human monuments that are both more intriguing and more problematic.The bravura opening fight scene is incredible. Elsewhere, the show’s striking group routines feel visibly inspired by contemporary dance legends like Pina Bausch – but their choreography can feel monotonous, lacking either her raw emotionalism, or the troupe’s flying-through-the-air flair. There’s the odd moment of delicious silliness, too, but the deliberately awkward dad-dancing from some of the guys in the troupe doesn’t raise the same chuckles second or third time around.
Compagnie XY is a collectively-run group that embraces performers of all ages and sizes, and it’s amazing to see grey-haired and young acrobats fling each other around the stage in moments of pure joy. When it comes to human towers, they can’t be beaten. And if their relentlessly cool, grey aesthetic can start to feel borderline dreary, maybe it’s because its time for more of their individual personalities to shine through.