Adams Spiegeltent, Norwich
Barely Methodical Troupe is arguably one of the UK’s hottest and hardest working circus companies at the moment. After the international success of their debut show Bromance, they followed up with the larger scale ensemble production Kin, and now they’re back down to a cast of four for new show Shift, making its international premiere at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
In many ways Shift feels aptly named, as this third show definitely seems like a maturation in terms of style and content for the company. Directed by choreographer Melissa Ellberger, the work comfortably occupies the liminal territory between ‘dance’ and ‘circus’ in satisfying balance. Taking as the central theme a series of physical explorations with various sized elastic Thera-bands, the cast of four rebounds, swings, flips and catch themselves and each other, frequently coming perilously close to the edge of the stage, playing with the risk and realities of liveness that great circus does so well. Featuring hand to hand, Cyr wheel, breakdance and plenty of acrobatic movement, the choreography is beautiful, and the dance and circus flow seamlessly in and out of one another in a way that other shows could learn from.
Without any overall narrative arc (that I was able to glean, at least), the work is comprised of a series of ensemble, solo and duo vignettes, some also involving vocals, singing, or a little-spoken storytelling to underscore the movement. This type of structure has come to be used frequently by circus companies and, for me at least, the tone and style is reminiscent of the Australian company Casus, rather than what I had come to understand as a Barely Methodical show. That being said, the company is still young, and growth, development and exploration are part of any group finding their feet. This successful push into new areas demonstrates their versatility as artists, as well as offering up the potential to broaden their appeal to different types of audience.
The cast is all at a superb level of technical skill in both their solos and ensemble moments – sitting ringside in the intimate spiegeltent as Charlie Wheeller performs Cyr wheel is a breathtaking experience, and breakdancer Elihu Vazquez is utterly astonishing in his physicality and a treat to watch. I was also pleased to see the return of the imposing yet tender Louis Gift, who had been recovering from injury for much of the last year. Initially I was concerned about how the addition of Esmerelda Nikolajeff might work, as I have previously been very vocal about my distaste for ensemble circus comprised of multiple men and one female flyer. However, Shift may be one of only a handful of examples where this gender disparity is not actually problematic. Nikolajeff’s physicality is rooted in movement and dynamism rather than objective display, and in group numbers she performs identical choreography to Wheeller; she is thrown and supported, dragged and flung as much as he is. Her role is not to be displayed, to be the only small one, to be the foil for the men’s strength, to act as a regulator to unruly behaviour, nor hyper-feminised to accentuate their maleness. She is simply an acrobat in a cast, and it is fabulous to see her skills.
Louis Gift and Esmerelda Nikolajeff in ‘Shift’ IMAGE: Gregory Batardon
Something must be said of the visual stylings, as the entire cast are costumed head to toe in cobalt blue to match the multiple therabands. If I were being uncharitable it could be described as somewhat Smurf-like, but costuming for circus is notoriously difficult, and the effort to create an aesthetic coherence where everyone is costumed for functionality, without hierarchy, is to be commended. Ultimately, it isn’t too distracting.
Shift is an interesting development for Barely Methodical and, while those seeking the cheeky and laddish lightheartedness of Bromance and Kin may be left a little wanting by the show’s sophisticated and gentle nature (though the irrepressible humour and chemistry between Wheeller and Gift does raise its head several times), there is no doubt that the production is top quality.