CircusFest, Roundhouse, London
This is the second time I’ve seen No Show, directed by Ellie Dubois and, for the second time, it brings the house down. Five candy-striped ninjas compel audience members to shout out to them, to cheer, to gasp with them (and, when it comes to displays of risk-taking or the pain of a trick, several children in the audience express their concern quite urgently). Everyone in the room becomes a team through the performers’ openness, honesty and vulnerability, which they reveal through autobiographical speech, audience eye contact and their own camaraderie.
These women are role models who celebrate individuality through their unapologetic appearance and their specialist tricks. They are strong, they are muscly, they are tall they are short. Sweaty and sparkly, hairy and out of breath, they are performing themselves and its great. Lisa Chudalla, Alice Gilmartin, Francesca Hyde, Kate McWilliam and Michelle Ross introduce themselves in first-name terms, after opening the show with a tongue-in-cheek cheesy floor routine of balances, walkovers, rolls and some sword swallowing thrown in for good measure. The incongruity of this smiley presentational style against the arduous realities of their circus practice is played with throughout.
Gilmartin’s speech is constantly sabotaged but her handbalances prevail, receiving unanimous cheers. A spoken introduction to Chudall on the Cyr wheel takes viewers through the potential dangers and increasing risk levels of different moves as she performs them: the basketball, leg crosses, wind-ups and coin. Never without a smirk or comment that reminds us of the contradictory expectations on female circus performers; the conflicting commentaries around professionalism, ‘not being strong enough’, ‘the trick is too hard’ and ‘not being pretty enough’, ‘the trick is too easy’, are a constant reminder of tensions not just in circus but in most industries.
A lyrical Cyr wheel routine sees Lisa hanging from the frame, forming extensions with her limbs and caressing the floor in constant momentum and weightlessness, ending with the wheel balanced on her toes in a hyper-extended handstand; Kate beats her personal best for cartwheels in a minute – but not the world record; Michelle demonstrates her swinging trapeze act with no trapeze; Alice eventually completes a handbalance routine after several attempts have been thwarted by her peers; a game of dodge and swing is played as a water container counterbalances Francesca, via a rope attached to her bundled hair. She circles and spins and plays with the team as she hangs from the very top of her head, while children in the audience exclaim in delight and fright. I would love to hear Kate speak her text about experiences as a female acrobat in commercial television whilst performing her dynamic tumbling routine, which would, I think, tip the balance from victimhood to master.
The notion of the audience’ gaze is cleverly challenged in this work. It raises an awareness of our role as viewer and makes us confront the expectations of sexiness, beauty, and femininity of a societally dominant male gaze. The company highlight their own awareness of their vulnerability and what audiences might be watching, expecting, experiencing. A regular return to the simple motif of raising both hands in an upward stretch and turning on the spot allows the performer to prolong eye contact with viewers and add this layer of meaning to the work. Raising the house lights, so we must watch the performers watching us watching them eat doughnuts, breaks multiple codes that add further layers of meaning.
No Show draws on themes of ignorance: of not knowing what circus is or how its done, and on patriarchy. The content comes from autobiographical examples but relate to much wider societal problems. These ladies are everywoman, and their show is an education in circus and in life.