An often dazzling fusion of endurance, masochism and spectacle, Backbone’s let down only by occasional misjudged ‘acting’ sequences. I’d argue there’s no need to artificially create ‘risk’, when Gravity and Other Myths’ show contains such second-to-none stunts. There’s enough there already.
Gravity and Other Myths’ Backbone has much in common with their A Simple Space (2014) – again, using the fertile relationship between trust, strength and competition (in the context of circus performance itself) as a starting point. Like their last show to grace the Southbank, it’s another fusion of endurance, masochistically adapted versions on confidence-building exercises – and, of course, moments of unadulterated and gravity-defying spectacle.
A backbone’s obviously the chief support of a body. I imagine the 10-strong cast’s backbones are a little stronger and more resilient than most, but the 80-minute performance recognises that ‘external’ backbones are equally important for survival. That select group of people we can trust to always be there, to pick us up and even, gulp, drop us when we deserve it. ‘External backbones’ takes on even more meaning, of course, in the context of the company’s preferred circus form: acrobalance. For every person catapulted into the air, they’ve at least one ‘backbone’ below who they are entirely reliant on. Plus additional ‘backbones’ (spotters) on hand in case the ‘backbone’ needs a backbone. That’s how circus works. A bit like life?
It’s a strong (no pun intended) premise to devise circus from – albeit one which occasionally leads the company towards sequences which feel a bit-close-for-comfort to what was offered in A Simple Space. Backbone‘s opening section, for example, feels remarkably alike to the former’s – where before, we had a tightly rehearsed sequence where troupe members would (seemingly randomly) chuck themselves on the ground only to be caught in the nick of time, here we have the troupe (seemingly randomly) shouted ‘Ready!’ with arms outstretched, before someone else chucking themselves at them.
There are staggeringly beautiful moments for sure – the ensemble pulsating, perfectly in time like an echo, each time a single performer lands a ‘tuck’ for example. Handstands become mesmerising ways to sow gravel, and an awe-inspiring sequence which I’ll nickname ‘The Light Princess on crack’ sees a female performer, much like Rosalie Craig but in even more inventive ways, fail to touch the ground for an extended period. An arresting lighting design elevates these spectacles further: the effect of omission caused by laser beams being interrupted by balancing poles, for example, is really quite staggering.
Having said this, the ‘trust exercises’ grate. Unsurprisingly, this troupe excel as circus performers – rather than actors – and the quite obviously ‘performed’ or disingenuine nature of certain moments are incongruous with the unmistakable ‘truth’ behind Gravity and Other Myths’ demonstrations of strength. There’s not enough sincerity in a staged argument for it to be compelling, and not enough reason or genuine ‘peril’ behind a slightly out-of-place punitory section involving a form of whipping on ‘unlucky’ performers’ abdomens. I wasn’t made confident enough that it was real (ie. they didn’t know exactly who was going to get ‘whipped’ each time), and as a result, the stakes didn’t feel high enough to be engaged. I wanted less ‘acting’, and the company to be confident, and a little more focused, on their skill and ability.
Having said that, Backbone does an impressive job in a void of a space. It’s a bold piece of programming for the Royal Festival Hall (though one expects it’s a difficult time of year for them to have many options) – but considering Gravity and Other Myths lack, of course, the enormous set pieces of Cirque du Soleil, the space feels constantly inhabited, dynamic and ‘consuming’. Despite the venue’s scale, the audience remains involved and responsive (or, at least, the press night invitees seemed to be).
Did I feel much? Probably not enough. It was my brain that engaged in Backbone more than my heart – perhaps due to proximity (or more specifically, the lack of it – compared to what you become used to with Underbelly-scale venues) but perhaps also due to the distancing effect of the disingenuous moments of ‘risk’. I honestly don’t think the company need these moments to stand out from the crowd – because their stunts, and the arresting stage pictures they conjure up, really are second-to-none.