There is something so simple yet very satisfying about performers having to overcome actual obstacles. This is something choreographer Pia Meuthen and her Panama Pictures company seem to understand really well. In a previous solo, Stripped, made for and with performer Tarek Rammo, the whole performance was built around a pair of aerial straps, which formed both a restriction to and an extension of his body.
In Meuthen’s latest show Each time we fall, a city rises, which premiered at Verkadefabriek in ‘s-Hertogenbosch on Friday 25 October, all the action takes place on an elevated platform that is tilted at an angle (there is also a suspended trapeze/swing hanging above the platform). One side of the platform (the scenography is by Sammy van den Heuvel) is folded upwards – like the first move in an origami pattern – and transformed into a makeshift wall for the five male performers to walk on. The platform is white, the rest of the stage is black.
Their world is literally lopsided. But, as singer Els Mondelaers muses in English at the beginning, it is all also a question of perspective. Is the world tilted, or are they? It is something Dutch poet Maria Barnas touches on in her poem Er staat een stad op (A city rises), and Barnas’ work – this poem in particular – inspired the piece. In the poem, she recounts the experience of travelling twenty stories down on an elevator somewhere in Buenos Aires. While she ‘falls’, the city rises.
What do we do when – in Mondelaers’ words – ‘perspective capsizes’? Do we get on, or do we get off? (Even more capsizing perspectives can be found in the trailer, available on the website. A word of warning: it is not suitable for people with motion sickness!). When the world has gone topsy-turvy, do you rigidly try to hold onto what once was? Do you take yourself of the board entirely? Or do you embrace the uncertainties?
The five male performers start out as a group, huddled together, all bending in the same direction at the same time (Mondelaers sometimes joins them in the space, at other times she stands to the side at what appears to be a synthesizer – the music is by Anthony Fiumara and Strijbos & Van Rijswijk). One of the performers tries to do something different, but quickly relents. There is safety in numbers.
Soon the performers go out to investigate, making full use of the tilted stage: running, jumping, summersaulting, scrambling up the slanted platform as if it were a roof and then tumbling and sliding down again.
Meuthen and the performers make smart use of their combined dance and circus backgrounds (Panama Pictures’ slogan is ‘where dance meets circus’) without the circus part getting too gimmicky, even when Tarek Rammo is standing on top of Nickolas van Corven’s outstretched arms, or when Rammo is doing backward flips on the trapeze using the crooks of his arms.
The scene with Rammo on the swing/trapeze is a key moment in the performance. First some of the performers, including Rammo himself, suddenly disappear, literally dropping off of the stage, leaving only Aime Morales and Jefta Tanate to find their own way. To be completely honest, at that point I thought we were nearing the end of the performance, with performers dropping like flies, one by one, Agatha Christie-style. The performers return, but Rammo has had enough. He climbs on top of the trapeze and stays there, looking down at his lost colleagues lying scattered across the stage, as if this was where they landed when they fell off of the stage only a few moments ago.
Up there he is safe, untouched, untroubled by a world that doesn’t make sense. Yet isolation isn’t an option.
If there is one thing that stands out most in Each time we fall, a city rises, it is the sense of togetherness in this group, consisting of Rammo, Van Corven, Morales, Tanata and Francesco Barba. Every time one of the outliers threatens to tumble off the stage, into the void, the rest of the group is there to help them, at one time even forming a human chain with their bodies. So when Rammo is ready to come down from his perch and rejoin the world, there is someone waiting for him, ready to help him down.
It touches on one of the most fundamental elements in circus performance: trust. Just as one partner, swinging 25 feet up in the air inside a circus arena, must trust that the other partner will catch them, these men have to trust that someone will catch them as they catapult themselves across the stage. Maybe that is the key to surviving this topsy-turvy world: by embracing uncertainty together.
Seen: October 25, Verkadefabriek, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. www.panamapictures.nl