Barely Methodical Troupe: ‘We are pushing boundaries’
The Cyr wheel is a large metal ring the size of a person. It was the only piece of acrobatic apparatus to feature in Bromance, the striking debut show from circus company Barely Methodical Troupe, which otherwise focused on hand-to-hand work. It’s quite a dramatic thing to see in motion – the unity of body and wheel, the dizzying increase in speed – and it was responsible for some of the show’s most thrilling sequences, gravity momentarily giving up and exiting the building.
The three core members of Barely Methodical Troupe are Louis Gift, Charlie Wheeller and Beren D’Amico. Barely out of circus school, they created Bromance, a genre-blurring show that drew on their backgrounds in dance, parkour, and b-boying. It was a circus show full of jaw-on-the-floor moments (many of which involved the Cyr wheel), but was also eloquent, witty and even a little poignant in its exploration of male friendships and relationships in general. The trio bore each other’s weight, they grasped each other’s hands, they all stripped down to their pants, they supported one another, threw each other in the air, and – on occasion – they let each other fall. They began performing the show in 2014, it was part of Underbelly’s Circus Hub programme at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and they continue to tour it.
Their new show Kin – which will premiere at CircusFest at the Roundhouse, London, this month – sees them pushing the circus-as-metaphor line further. Though “the vibe and the humour is similar to Bromance, it comes from us”. Gift explains that Kin “takes its inspiration from Lord of the Flies”.
“It’s about this idea of hierarchy and social position and your relationship with the rest of the group – your position within a family of people.”
The new show also sees the team double in size, with Gift, Wheeller and D’Amico performing alongside Jonathan Bendsten, Jean Brousse, and Nikki Rummer. It will be choreographed and directed by Ben Duke, the co-founder and artistic director of Lost Dog, whose recent dance-theatre pieces include Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me) and It Needs Horses.
“We always wanted to make work with a bigger group, to explore that more,” says D’Amico. “With more people, there’s more room for bigger ideas, but also, technically, we can create bigger tricks – there are more people to throw and more people to jump. It’s safer, too, because there are more people to be there for you if anything happens to go wrong. Which,” he adds quickly, “it won’t.”
“We’ve been enjoying exploring onstage relationships and how they develop,” he continues. “They can develop very naturally and organically when you’re throwing and catching other people.”
For the past hour, I’ve been watching them rehearse Kin in a chilly studio space in Hackney Downs, lit by strips of pink neon and the orange glow of portable heaters. It’s a fascinating process to see in action: the repetition, the refinement of movement, the infinitesimal shifts in weight, the positions of feet and hands, the placing of trust in each other. Afterwards, when we talk, we all end up sitting in a circle on the blue crash mats, as if we were in school. It’s interesting to see how the group dynamics play out in this context, too – who talks and when.
3 more circusfest shows to see
1. Smoke and Mirrors Ricochet’s tender and exposing circus theatre two-hander. Jacksons Lane, London, April 19-23
2. Tipping Point Exhilarating aerial theatre from Ockham’s Razor. Artsdepot, London, April 20-24
3. Me, Mother MES’ multimedia production exploring what happens when circus performers become mothers. Sackler Space, London, April 21-23
“We’ve all known each other for a while,” says Wheeller. “We’ve all worked together before. Nikki and Johnny know each other, too. It’s nice to have these different pairings and relationships. Beren made a really interesting point about the way, with different friendship groups, you can be a very different person, you can occupy a very different role. That applies here; we take on different roles in different groups when we perform, the heaviest, the lightest, that sort of thing.”
As well as three extra bodies, there’ll also be a second wheel on stage. “It’s such a perfect instrument,” says Wheeller, whose chief discipline, aptly, is the Cyr wheel. “A perfect circle. The way it moves, it has a real weight to it. It’s mesmerising to watch. We thought another wheel would be interesting, to have these two wheels moving around the space together.”
With Kin, they’re also pushing further at the line between dance and circus.
For Duke, “there are similarities between circus and the dance world, but there are also huge differences”.
“One of the biggest differences is in the way they use their bodies and the extremities of what they’re doing,” he says. “My normal approach would not be the right way to approach this; the movement stretches away from dance to a place where you don’t want to put anything on top of it. You just want to watch them. You can’t really get away from the fact that it’s incredibly dangerous and that danger makes me watch them in a way that feels different from the dance process.”
Risk is part of the process with the work they make. With Bromance, they had to cancel shows due to injury, and during last year’s Edinburgh run they had to remove some of the more demanding routines from the show to give them time to heal. The rehearsal process is as much about minimising risk as it is about anything else.
“You have to train a lot, to work on the tricks a lot,” says D’Amico. “We have this lunge, this harness. If you’re being thrown in the air, you want to do things a million times [with the lunge] until you know it well enough to take it off. Then we put mats down. Then you do it with just people around you. So when you come to perform it, you know you can land it every time. It’s about making something that looks really dangerous not be that dangerous – because you know it, because it’s in your body.”
The word ‘flow’ crops up a few times in our conversation. “As a company, they’re really interested in how the tricks, or the things we’d most obviously recognise as circus, can flow,” Duke says. “These moments emerge out of the piece and they dissolve back into it: gone.”
With Bromance, fragility was as much a part of the feel of the piece as strength. In keeping with a number of contemporary circus works, they have not taken steps to make the performance seem entirely effortless. You can see the strain and the sweat, the occasional grimace. Vulnerability is written into the work in a way that becomes central to the aesthetic. “What we’re doing does hurt sometimes,” says D’Amico, “and it’s interesting – and easier – to not hide that, to make that part of it.”
With April’s CircusFest and Underbelly’s launch of a dedicated circus space at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, it does feel like an exciting time to be making circus. They’re all in agreement that it is becoming more of an art form. For US-born Rummer, who trained as a gymnast, this is very much the case.
“It used to be considered an entertainment, but now it’s definitely being recognised as an art form – but in the midst of that, it’s still searching for its identity. With theatre, there are centuries of history and development behind the work, but with a lot of circus shows, there is a sense they’re still looking at how to tell a story while doing all these amazing tricks; how do you to do that interestingly and effectively? As a form, circus still seems to be searching for those answers, and it’s quite exciting to be pushing these boundaries.”
It’s part of the reason she made the switch from gymnastics. “With gymnastics, you’re putting a lot of tricks together and making sure you do them all really cleanly in a competition, and then you beat yourself up about it if you don’t do it perfectly. But with circus, you have something more – this is work that has a heart and soul to it.”
Venue: Roundhouse, London
Dates: April 20-24
Devised by: Ben Duke and the company
Director: Ben Duke
Design: Holly Waddington (set), Jackie Shemesh (lighting)
Technical: Ella Robson Guilfoyle (assistant director)
Cast: Jonathan Bendsten, Jean Brousse, Beren D’Amico, Louis Gift, Nikki Rummer, Charlie Wheeller
Producer: Di Robson
Rehearsal period: eight weeks
Production budget: £110,000
Kin will run at the Roundhouse, London, from April 20-24, as part of CircusFest 2016
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