The New Conformity: juggling as an exploration of bullying—and, compellingly—physics

Cause & Effect Circus is performing The New Conformity at Presentation House.

The New Conformity tells a story. It’s also about the wonder of the physical world.

There is so much physical beauty in The New Conformity that, watching the show, I found myself moaning.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the three jugglers who perform The New Conformity—although Chris Murdoch, Ryan Mellors, and Yuki Ueda are all handsome, which doesn’t hurt. I’m talking about sculptural beauty. These guys don’t just juggle, they virtually dance. And when they manipulate objects—balls, clubs, and hoops—there’s something profoundly pleasing about the physics.

One of my favourite moments is also among the simplest. Murdoch and Mellors sit in chairs. Each of them holds four white balls in both hands. Those balls form little pyramids—three on the bottom, one on the top. But the pyramids are in constant motion: as the performers move their fingers, the configuration of the pyramids shifts; the balls change places. Watching this virtual bubbling is like witnessing some kind of elemental organic process—and it’s mesmerizing.

Other passages that are flashier and larger in scale are also trippy. Murdoch manipulates a couple of crystal balls so subtly that they seem to be moving of their own accord. At first, just one of them slides back and forth on the palm of his hand but, before long, two of them are doing circuits around his arms and upper chest. And Mellors performs a solo with white hoops that multiply and form mandala-like patterns. Watching those patterns mutate is like finding yourself inside an enormous kaleidoscope.

Don’t forget, this performance is musical as well. In an early sequence, all three artists juggle in synch to club music and the combination of movement, weight, and rhythm is deeply gratifying.

But don’t get me wrong; unlike most juggling acts, the members of Cause & Effect Circus don’t show off in a big way. There are no “Ta da!” moments in The New Conformity. At the end of a long, skilled passage, this group’s version of “Ta Da!” is to glance wistfully at the audience as if they hold scant hope of approval.

In the collectively written program notes, the artists say, “We pull juggling out of the context of spectacle and place it as a central symbol in a story we can all relate to—the struggle between individuality and conformity.” Fair enough. And the narrative of The New Conformity is okay but, in my opinion, it could be stronger.

That’s because, as it stands, it’s a cliché. At the beginning of The New Conformity, the three jugglers all appear in single-breasted charcoal grey suits. Then one of them (Murdoch) rebels, first by juggling more creatively and then by taking his suit jacket off. I’m 65 and I’ve been aware of seeing business suits used as a symbol of soullessness for about 50 years. There are a couple of clever variations on the theme here—playing the establishment types, Mellors and Ueda ignore Murdoch by flipping rhythmically through screens on their cellphones—but the basic idea is familiar and its trajectory is mostly predictable. There are also a couple of unmotivated plot turns: when Ueda’s character changes his attitude, for instance, and when all three veer towards the conclusion.

I don’t want to overstate this criticism, though. My companion found the storyline moving.

And these guys do lovely things.

So go. And, if you have kids in your life, take them too. There’s a fight sequence, but don’t let that concern you. It’s athletic, balletic, and cartoon-like all at once. On opening night, the children in the audience found it hilarious—because it is. And this show doesn’t encourage bullying; it does the opposite.

THE NEW CONFORMITY Story concept by Sean Brossard. Directed by Chris Murdoch, Ryan Mellors, and Yuki Ueda. Presented by Cause & Effect Circus on Wednesday, November 22 at Presentation House. Continues until December 2.

Get your tickets here.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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