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Backbone review at Southbank Centre, London – ‘bold, colourful circus show exploring notions of strength’

Scene from Backbone, by Gravity and Other Myths, at London's Southbank Centre. Photo: Carnival Cinema Scene from Backbone, by Gravity and Other Myths, at London's Southbank Centre. Photo: Carnival Cinema
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Backbone, by Australian circus company Gravity and Other Myths, derives some of its strength from upending our big-top expectations. There’s a false start – lights dimmed, performers arranged expectantly toe-to-toe – that gives way to a casual sequence of setting up and warming up.

Chattering amiably among themselves, the cast members position their props – clothes rails, buckets, rocks and poles – and practise thigh balances in pairs, signalling their readiness with a “hup”. It’s a neat way of evoking the reality of graft and repetition that underpins the glitz of performance.

The strength of the ensemble is paramount to Backbone – there are no star turns here. The company (comprising seven men and three women) takes the idea of team-building to a new level, whether that’s in the construction of tripartite human towers or dance-like displays of domino-effect motion, with individual limbs as components in a fleshy physical contraption.

Gender is gestured at – the women don grey suits, the men some shmata-style frocks – but it’s somewhat superficial. Women are necessarily the lightweight ‘flyers’ here: held up, swung around and caught, like elegant agricultural cargo, by the burlier males.

The blokes, who do most of the tumbling, also have a habit of hurtling horizontally and hoofing each other in the chest, which gets a bit tiresome. A masochistic game involving a rope smacking people in the abdomen is also an odd addition.

Bold, colourful lighting enhances the spectacle, along with a live musical accompaniment that blends folk-style violin melodies with synths and clacking, churning soundscapes.

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Largely enjoyable circus show explores notions of strength and community