Friday, 28 August 2015

Highlights from the Fringe: Smoke and Mirrors


Have you heard of Pepper's ghost? It was a popular illusion in old carnival sideshows, dating back to the 1800s, using angled mirrors to conjure up the image of an ethereal spirit.  Alexander McQueen used the technique on the catwalk to render Kate Moss a will-o'-the-wisp trapped in a transparent pyramid (click here for the video), and I saw it recently at the V&A exhibition Savage Beauty (click here for the post). The aim of the installation was to provoke an emotional response, and I for one found the hologram a captivatingly poignant finale to the promenade through his work, summoning up McQueen, as his much as his muse. McQueen was a tortured soul always, striving to fashion beauty out of pain, and there is a sense of that longing for the unattainable in Smoke and Mirrors by the Ricochet Project, a partnership between Laura Stokes and Cohdi Harrell, over from New Mexico for their first Fringe. It was a hauntingly beautiful piece. 

Photo: Kate Russell
There was a lot of buzz about this show, and I was tremendously excited, having heard on the grapevine that it would feature the most exciting static trapeze work around. I arrived at Smoke and Mirrors a little deflated. I had just watched Wings in my heart (click here), two and a half hours' long, enchanting but exhausting. Then a chance conversation about further budget cuts to the arts left me despondent. There are so many vibrant companies, communities and theatres operating on a shoestring of a budget, using their own smoke and mirrors tricks to conjure up shows out of thin air, how will they survive? Smoke and mirrors acted like a defibrillator to revive my flagging heart.

It is a show diametrically opposed to Wings, an intimate Cirque de Soleil-style spectacle that carries a gentle, sincere message to follow your dreams and soar. Wings is a picture postcard from the rural idyll the Rigolo family inhabit in the Swiss mountains. Smoke and Mirrors is spartan in comparison: a couple of chairs, a trapeze and a rope. Its very minimalism suggestively ominous. We are presented with an urban hell of disconnected living where people's lives are driven by financial forecasts and meaningless statistics, enunciated by the voiceover at the beginning. Harrell and Stokes are dressed in suits, accessorised with briefcase and glasses, but very quickly this city apparel is stripped away to bare the humanity underneath. There is a sense of rediscovering our inner noble savage for, as an Orwellian (or Orson Wellesian?!) voiceover signals, society has taken a wrong turn, we human beings "think too much and feel too little". We have twisted ourselves in knots in the pursuit of happiness when really it's very simple: we just need to connect.

I still get goosebumps thinking of the sublime aerial acrobatics and choreography used to convey this. I love watching duets and the dynamic charge that generates, so watching Harrell and Stokes together on trapeze, and their synchronised handstands, was a complete joy. But I was also mesmerised by their separate turns. I found the drops on rope thrilling and the toe hangs excruciatingly lengthy. But more than the endurance of pain, and strength required, it was the extraordinary beauty of the forms  that Harrell and Stokes create with their mercurial movement that impressed me. The lighting and shadows gave their installation a Reubenesque richness, and I found the audio, the music and spoken word, the perfect frame. Together all these elements came together to create a performance of great physical depth and extraordinary power, that I feel privileged to have witnessed first-hand.

Smoke and Mirrors is at the Assembly Checkpoint 6pm for three more performances until 30 August.

Catch it while you can.

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