Say circus artist and I’m there. Say circus artist who also trained at Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. and I may never leave. Say all the above plus a 60-minute piece with no interval and I’ll very probably spontaneously combust.
That’s the mood I had on entering The Place theatre to see Alexander Vantournhout’s Through the Grapevine by Not Standing, his Belgium-based company. The work was created in 2020 with the same cast – Vantournhout and Axel Guérin – and is in London as part of the London International Mime Festival 2023.
Festivals tend to be good things, but labels can be problematic. Mime. What does mime actually mean? And should we take the label literally? Perhaps that’s a chat for another time. Defining mime and the complexity of labels… but for the record: Through the Grapevine had zero relation to my understanding of the mime genre.
The Place ruined my positive vibes by starting the piece 22 minutes late. I get they don’t want latecomers but come late and pay the price I say. Some of us work and have trains to catch. Thankfully the calibre of work took my demeanour elsewhere almost instantaneously, and I spent most of the piece beaming – for two main reasons: wonder and bewilderment.
The work begins with Vantournhout and Guérin doing biological and mathematical experiments as they explore and analyse their proportions, work out what the idiosyncratic dimensions allow for, and not. And off they go.
It feels scientific throughout. Not in a dry way, but most definitely in a movement/choreographic lab way. The R&D (research and development) for this piece must have been a hoot, but all the trial and error was worth it as they’ve ended up with a truly original offering that won’t tire or age.
What can you expect? Four-legged mythical creatures navigating the space with mechanical ease, endless versions of a two-person wheel that both wow and dumbfound in their scope of originality, and upper body choreography that executes the arms in intricate puzzles, evoking dynamic fencing and percussive pat-a-cake pat-a-cake for starters!
There’s a middle section mostly of floor work which waned a little, but the final allegro jumping segment is extraordinary. I remember balancing with my hips on peoples’ feet as a child – perhaps the first time one experiences weightlessness. Vantournhout and Guérin take this simple play concept and amp it up no end, running from one end of the space, launching and being caught by the other, who then propels them back where they came from. It’s gasp-out-loud territory – especially as they keep raising the risk-taking and associated dynamic levels.
The Place is an intimate space so allows for up-close analysis of the performers in action. Both are extremely focused and committed – inevitable considering the content. And they also have wonderfully neutral approaches to ‘performance’ – nothing feeling staged or premeditated. They communicate the work, and that’s all that’s needed. The same can be said for the production values: attire = shorts (Anne-Catherine Kunz); stage = white lino in black box with bright, simple lighting (Bjorn Verlinde). I also loved watching their energy journeys within that environment, at times breathless from exertion, at others properly fatigued, but they kept recovering and continuing. Voyeurism at full pelt.
That said, there’s also an element of poetry… or at least for me. Choreographically they seem initially conjoined, but as the work develops and they have moments physically apart, their ongoing proximity and related intimacy starts to feel like a necessary choice. Not only for movement’s sake but for something additional, deeper and unspoken, between the two.
Most of the work is in silence, though the two percussive, perpetual style musical interludes by Andrea Belfi are appreciated and work well. They arrive and disappear from nowhere.
The audience seemed confused at times as if unsure how to appreciate the work. Some went down the circus route of applauding at an obvious feat or aahing in wonder. I get it. But this is far more than that. It’s a true study of movement and intention, i.e. choreography. The kind one imagines you contemplate when immersed in a research cycle at P.A.R.T.S.
There’s definitely something going on in Belgium. Well, there has been for a while. And it’s far more than just chocolate.