Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Chapter 191: Casus Circus' Driftwood

All photos: Angus Stewart (

London is transience. People flood in and out.  We rub shoulders on the tube. Londoners never make eye contact; tourists and dreamers might. A look, a smile, an acknowledgement, we touch, we are touched, we drift. Apart. Or sometimes in the same direction. My husband and I met on the banks of the Thames and have bobbed along for 17 years now, wondering at the deeper currents that somehow drag us together through patches of stormy waters without getting wrecked. Through physical poetry and the element of risk Casus Circus describe both those moments of connection and the fragility of all relationships.

I watched Driftwood in the evening after meeting up with Shannon Vitali and Jon Bonventura to chat about the show (see previous post - click here), and that personal connection heightened the anticipation. The hottest day of the year had given way to the balmiest of evenings and I sat outside the Spiegeltent transported in a wooden dodgem, this time in the wonderful company of Howard, founder of Burlexe and Boylexe, drinking in the circus spirit along with  tequila-infused Desperado beer. Luckily we noticed the doors opening in time to nip in and catch the last couple of free seats on the front row.

The lighting was dim inside, an intimate affair. In walked the performers and took their stations like five points of a pentagram. Shannon was directly facing us on the side and there was a flash of recognition and an immediate smile. This is the way of Driftwood, and part of their ethos - the artists are themselves and go with the flow. I had been ready for the pared down aesthetics of the show, the notes of silvers, greys and rich burgandies in the costumes, and then registered Jon owning it in a scarlett corset. Fabulous! Certain garments came and went - "circus folk bloody love taking their clothes off" after all (an observation at GDIF a couple of years ago see post - click here) - and I was sad to see the corset go, but could see how it would have been an impediment to fluid movements requiring greater flexibility in the back later. 

Threaded through the interactions was the recurring conceit of the red lampshade that would descend at points, each performer at different points drawn like a moth to its flame. By turns this could be comical with a performer contorting to reach the bulb, an echo of ET there!, then trying to restrain themselves from its siren call, or mystical in contemplation, and in the exploration of the pool of light it cast.

I loved the camaraderie between the group and the dynamics. If you have seen the "other" Driftwood (I haven't, but have heard about it) you would appreciate the subtle changes between certain acts. A charged duet between husbands Jesse Scott Lachlan Mcauley in one show is a bromance in the other, playing on the familiar, rather than sexual, chemistry between Jon and David Trappes, and the physical comedy inherent in their small versus tall physiques.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Samoan "Siva" dance between Natano Fa'anana and Kali Retallack becomes a "Bongle" reflecting Johnny Brown's indigenous Australian heritage. The piece enables Shannon to return to her beloved dance roots, especially modern style. Johnny is also a dancer by training and watching them together in their (original) element was mesmerising. I can't remember if he was wearing the soft kilt still at that point, but I do remember the folds following the flow of his limbs, as with Shannon's skirted tunic. They both had such an elegance, energy and style. In Shannon's case this translated effortlessly onto a sequence on aerial hoop, as did her background in contortion, as she transitioned the most incredible of shapes at dizzying speed. I felt it especially keenly after the aerial intensive week with Freedom2Fly (see Chapter 186 - click here) where even the slowest of spins felt like one of Torvill's triple axels on ice. 

Sarah McDougall led the way with her hula-hooping - she was clearly the pro with the more intricate tricks. Shannon and Jon had flagged to me earlier they were new to the skill, but nonetheless performed seamlessly with flair, again no mean feat as I appreciated after a workshop with NoFit State back at Underbelly last year (see Chapter 165 - click here). "Simple" tricks like the roll of the hoop across the shoulders of all three delighted me, and there was a sense of the hoop as metaphor for drawing (in) the circle family, connecting the dots. Sarah is also a natural clown, trained in trapeze and super-strong, so moments when she supported the whole cast, or based a three high, were as entertaining as they were staggeringly impressive, and turned the tables once again on gender assumptions. I love Casus for that as much as she does, clearly.

Another terrifying moment came with the arrival of the perch, which had doubled as a clothes hanger in an earlier scene. It was a study in equilibristics and connection as Jon balanced atop a perch balanced by David. Unable to communicate by language, for obvious reasons, as base, David had to subtly adjust his movements to any shifts is balance by Jon, who in turn interpreted the tremors travelling up the pole and responded accordingly. Later it was David's turn for a balance inversion, as he rested just on his head on the cushioned bar of a trapeze (the first time I have seen the Washington trapeze act performed live), swung gentle between the four performers, split and doubled up into a two-high on either side. As with other precarious feats it was tense watching, but also had the intensely lyrical quality of a lullaby, maybe it was the rocking motion that brought that to mind, or the gentlest of touches either side that set it in motion.

I was disappointed to see a rope come down finally as I knew, from conversation with Jon earlier, that, as well as being his speciality, this signalled the end of the line. I would have been content watching him perform the most beautiful drops, spins and acrobatics, but when the rope morphed into a Spanish web I realised that was the real showstopper. Normally (as I found out recently at Freedom2FlyDA) this would mean one hand is secured in a strap at the top while another holds further down and the bottom is swung round by another person to spin it. Here there wasn't a loop though, simply Jon's sheer grip holding on to both parts of the rope.  Spinning faster and faster, wave after wave.

In a world where we are "tossed, and drifting ever, On life's unresting sea", navigating our way through human relationships, the consummate circus skills at play in Driftwood concentrated the thrill of turbulent emotional tides, as well as captured the gentler, endearing moments of connections and completely swept us away. 

Like a plank of driftwood 
Tossed on the watery main, 
Another plank encountered, 
Meets, touches, parts again; 
So tossed, and drifting ever, 
On life’s unresting sea, 
Men meet, and greet, and sever, 
Parting eternally."

Edwin Arnold (1832-1904)

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