Backbone

Theatre, Circuses
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Gravity & Other Myths bring their latest show, full of feats of endurance and strength, to Sydney Festival

It takes a hell of a lot of ingenuity to come up with genuinely novel acrobatic tricks in 2018. But to come up with a whole new form of circus within which they can be performed? That’s practically impossible.

Ten members of Adelaide acrobatic ensemble Gravity and Other Myths come close to achieving the impossible over and over again in Backbone, which had its world premiere at last year’s Adelaide Festival. The show was co-commissioned by Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, and director Darcy Grant says having that backing allowed the company time to develop and extensively workshop the piece. That’s surely a significant part of why it feels so fresh and robust.

It’s miles from the gloss of Cirque du Soleil, has a completely different style of showmanship than old-school circus and none of the raunchiness that frequently accompanies circus aimed at adult audiences.

It’s closest to the work of the internationally renowned Brisbane-based ensemble Circa, whose acrobatics frequently cross the line into contemporary dance. But the world of Backbone is even more expansive and theatrical, and abstract in its imagery and ideas.The central theme is shared by most acrobatics: the possibilities and limits of human strength. From here, Grant and his ensemble have exploded out in all directions but created a cohesive whole.

The performers pit themselves against one another: climbing atop each other, swinging wildly through the air towards each other, and throwing their fellow performers across the space. There are plenty of tricks you won’t have seen before, and the performers all show extraordinary skill and versatility. (Although a little less throwing of the three female ensemble members might be welcome.)

They also pit themselves against heavy rocks and sticks. One of the most memorable images from the show sees a woman suspended high above the ensemble on a single stick; she looks a lot like a butterfly pinned against a board. But these sticks and stones are the only elements that could be termed ‘apparatus’ in the show, which throws its focus entirely on what its performers can achieve as a collective.

The show is visually extraordinary and the design by Geoff Cobham – which exposes the bare bones of the theatre and equipment with bare brick walls and lighting rigs – is as inventive as the acrobatics. The costumes are a mish-mash of everyday clothing, apart from one suit of armour, which becomes its own recurring joke.

Cobham’s lighting is equally astonishing, thanks to the use of mirrors in every corner, bouncing light around the stage. And one single spotlight, in a rather unusual position, sits at the core of a genuinely bizarre and captivating chapter in the show.

The composers, Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory, perform live on multiple instruments and are an essential part of the ensemble. It’s rare to see acrobatics and music in such a close conversation; the score emphasises the shape of various segments and occasionally offers the tasteful musical equivalent of a “ta-da!”.

The finale, which gives a callback to much of what we’ve seen over the last 70 minutes, is particularly affecting. Even if you’re at a loss as to the significance or intended meaning of certain images or movements, most have a surprisingly strong emotional punch. That’s not something you can say about much circus.

By: Ben Neutze

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