Genuinely breathless and unique stunts are on offer in Circolombia‘s latest self-titled and relentlessly energetic Underbelly offering. The show shares one too many of the innovations, and misfired creative decisions, as the company’s 2015 smash Acelere though – so it’s difficult to not question its originality.
Circolombia are back in town with the support of the Colombian Ministry of Culture and Embassy, to conclude their self-titled global tour with a 7-week Underbelly stint. Replacing Circus Abyssinia’s terrific Ethiopian Dreams as the Southbank festival’s second headliner of the summer, the show’s billed as a ‘thrilling new circus show with guts, gusto and grace’ – and undeniably offers all three by the bucketload.
Genuinely breathless stunts pepper the show’s 60-minute running time (a number of which I’m confident are more-or-less unique to the company). You will gasp and gape – particularly during the moments involving performers’ teeth and foreheads – and want to jump up and join in at others, particularly because of the palpable swag to all 14 performers. You want to be them; there’s an undeniable coolness to the way they approach their craft, way they carry themselves and even the way they bow and showing off in the bar moments after.
It’s the word ‘new’ in the show’s billing, though, which I take slight issue with. Memory obviously clouds over three years, but the last Circolombia show I caught (Acelere, Roundhouse, 2015) was a little too similar for comfort. Oddly perhaps, if my memory serves me right, it was also culpable of the same, ever-so-slightly misfired creative decisions which let down this year’s production too.
The cloud swing performance, for example, is again weakened by an unnecessary monologue that the audience neither quite hears, nor cares about. The bits you do here are – albeit fittingly for a ‘cloud’ swing – fluffy at best (and pretentious at worst). And with the obvious exception of the live songs, it’s the only act featuring words – but for a reason which is never explained nor clear. The tricks are good enough without it (and I suspect she could do even more without the additional responsibility of speaking + retaining a microphone pack), so it’d be so simple to just cut.
The show also takes a while to warm up, an issue when your show is already fixed at a slight festival-appropriate time length. Perhaps I’d criticise the performers for playing it slightly too ‘cool-for-school’ during the opening sequence; the audience doesn’t quite feel involved, and part of the fun, in the way we’d like to simply due to a lack of interaction (and a smile goes a long way).
As with Acelere, the show doesn’t make any excuses for being rough-around-the-edges – its aesthetic is proudly stripped-back (slash non-existent) and that definitely works for some shows, but I’m not entirely sold on it working for this. The ‘Colombia’ they portray is dynamic, colourful, welcoming, celebratory. And whilst the stunts bring that energy to life, I don’t see any harm in (even a basic set) suggesting the same. Lighting design is pretty basic, and the stage is black and bare when you enter and exit. I entirely understand the need for an uncluttered stage when tumbling/swinging, but I just wanted bright colours – some hanging neon lights, or subtle set design hints back to the colours of the flag. The Colombian ‘spirit’ was established, but not enough; it disappeared as soon as each act was over, and that seemed a shame.
The eternal issue with regularly analysing contemporary circus, though, is it’s all-too-easy to forget the average ticketholder will more or likely not have seen anything quite like it before. And in that respect, the stunts alone make this a cut above many – we’re treated to incomprehensible neck hangs (wait until you see how an already advanced move is thrillingly, preposterously, made more complicated…) and a stunning straps act (worthy of ticket price alone). So whilst not the strongest Underbelly circus headliner I’ve been lucky enough to see, Circolombia‘s energy and heart-raising setpieces are far from things to be sniffed at. It may not be truly ‘new’ from the company, but if you’ve not seen them before, you’re not going to mind that.