Some people live for compartmentalisation – others blurred lines. There’s no doubt that Rachid Ouramdane and his band of extreme-sports warriors and acrobats are giving us the latter with Corps extrêmes, a Chaillot – Théâtre national de la Danse production at Sadler’s Wells 23-24 May.
What are we watching? It’s highly skilled, so circus? But there are also clear choreographic elements, with visual projections and personal, philosophical sharing… oh god, I don’t know what’s going on either!
The stage is already set as we enter the auditorium – a multipurpose backdrop; a climbing wall that becomes a ginormous projection screen and a lone highwire.
As Jean-Baptiste Julien’s atmospheric music of primarily a lone electric guitarist fills the space, we’re visually transported to a far-away gorge where we see the highwire walker doing his thing (on location and in the Wells), and it’s not an easy watch if you aren’t into heights. But the personal narration soon takes you on a different kind of journey – one of insight, experience and calling.
Calling is an interesting word as that’s what I felt in the presence of a group of people who have no option but to do what they’re doing – the need is out of their control. To me, that’s the trait of an artist… more blurred lines!
The highwire walker is joined by nine acrobats and the blurring continues. However, the skill level is palpable and unquestionable. Acrobats are different beings altogether – their baseline is not that of the average human. While we feel most at home on terra firma, they seem to be in their natural habitat when in a human tower of three people, or mid-air after they’ve launched themselves off the climbing wall to be caught by their peers.
The skill is an obvious factor, but what amazed me was the control within the work, and the fact that falls or flights were broken with literally no support from the catchers. It was the most subtle, organic work I’ve seen in a while.
Personal moments included an acrobat talking us through a bad fall and the impact it had on confidence and continuity, and a rock climber sharing their duality in the moment and ongoing quest for connection to nature.
The individual insights emphasised the levels of focus required and how this impacts the experience of the doer. They all seem to go to spiritual places where concentration becomes a form of connection or dare I say prayer.
I saw many similarities to a pure dance piece with the use of dynamic, partnering, lifts, canon and spatial patterning throughout the one-hour performance.
In the highwire moments I witnessed the foot and ankle articulation of a dancer, the balance that port de bras enables, the core stability dancers can’t survive without, and the indispensable eye focus of all physical performers.
The agility of the acrobats on the climbing wall also featured the level of physical prowess one sees dancers embody – every single part of the body is where it needs to be, further developed through dynamics, momentum, and form.
But if it isn’t dance then why? Perhaps it’s simpler to say that circus is the home of skill and dance of (skilled) emotion. As much as I marvelled at the mastery of the performance, it didn’t connect with me on an emotional level. Yes, I was at times in awe, yet after a while a human tower is just that. Don’t get me wrong, they are undoubtedly artists (of a kind), and I loved seeing the intention in their presence as they navigated the space, but I still missed the often hard-to-describe aspect that makes dance what it is. And I believe it’s emotion communicated through movement; however you find it, or they convey it.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers’ Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.