Backbone: this show has plenty of it

Gravity & Other Myths is presenting Backbone at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Fly, my beauties! Fly!

Backbone made me really, really happy in my body. Another way of saying that is that, for about the first ten minutes of the show, I was moaning and gasping and—let’s face it—talking as if I was having sex with the entire company of ten acrobats and two musicians.

With Backbone, the Australian circus troupe Gravity & Other Myths sets out to explore strength. And, as they climb up one another until there are two four-person towers on-stage—each acrobat standing on another’s shoulders—and, as they hurl each nother through space (at one point, two pairs of men swing one woman each back and forth before releasing them and sending them flying into the arms of a couple of other guys), there’s a lot of muscle power on display.

But there’s also something deeply erotic in the subtext—both in the Freudian sense that Eros is a celebration of life and in the Jungian sense (Sorry, I’m getting a bit heady) that Eros is about personal relatedness in human activities. I mean, the evening unfolds in distinct movements—there’s a whole section about rocks and weight, for instance—but nothing feels even vaguely like a solo act. And, on the fleshly level, it feels so good to witness the ease and the effort, the trust and the skill with which these gorgeous humans respond to and support one another’s bodies. Hand to head, thigh to waist, foot to foot, it’s all about charged physical contact, and who couldn’t use more of that?

Within this collective effort, a few of the performers stood out for me. I’m thinking of Lachlan Harper, for instance, an elegant young guy and the lightest of the men. This kid gets such elevation in everything he does. Near the end of the 80-minute show, which has to be exhausting, he does standing backflips—with corkscrews—over and over again. And he keeps getting the lift-off of a basketball player. It’s a crazy feat of strength and agility. There’s astonishing fluidity in some of the crosses, he does too—watching him create lines that ripple through space is like watching an artist writing on water.

There’s a distinctly dance-like feel to a lot of the material in Backbone, and that quality is very apparent in the work of Lewis Rankin, a strawberry blond guy who seems particularly attuned to momentum and propulsion, and to sustaining the choreographic line.

Gravity & Other Myths was here in 2015 with their other show, A Simple Space, which focused much more on death-defying feats. Backbone is more conceptual and there is a bit of a downside to that. Things never get boring, but the company delivers many of its most spectacular tricks right off the top and, after that, I experienced slight depressions in my level of engagement.

In the first section with rocks, for instance, Jascha Boyce cradles a large stone in her arms as she stands on the torso of one of the guys, who’s lying down, and two other performers drag that guy around by his feet. Yeah, this passage is about inertia and effort, I guess, but I found it less rewarding viscerally and conceptually than a lot of the other material.

And it’s followed up by a passage in which all of the company members balance long poles on their foreheads. Okay, endurance, I suppose, and this bit is sculpturally pleasing for a while, but it goes on too long. This section does have a great pay-off, however: Mieke Lizotte ends up balancing high in the air, her body draped backwards, supported by just one slender pole in the middle of her back.

Jeff Cobham’s lighting design is spectacular. Using side lights, he contours the bodies and props dramatically. And he also uses a lot of very intense beams of colour—including tons of aquamarine— that he bounces off rectangular reflective panels, creating geometric webs of light that are really, really pretty.

Two on-stage musicians—Shenton Gregory and Christopher Neal the night I was there—fill the space with music that ranges from the eerily contemplative to the urgently percussive.

And there are all sorts of grace notes in the evening, including the fluid treatment of gender. The women do most of the flying, but sometimes the men fly, too. There’s a lovely all-female trio. And occasionally, one of the guys will show up in a gauzy dress. Because strength comes in all sorts of textures.

Do yourself a favour. Get some Backbone.

BACKBONE Directed by Darcy Grant. Produced Gravity & Other Myths. Presented by The Cultch.At the Vancouver Playhouse on Tuesday, October 30.  Continues until November 4. Tickets.

 

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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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