If, with its greasy foodstores and eccentric costumes, Camden is the circus of London, then for the next few weeks the Roundhouse is, without a doubt, our capital’s big top. Throughout April, NoFit State circus company is bringing the full thrill of its anachronistically anarchic artform to the venue. Yes, this may be a more permanent structure than the traditional striped tent, but these graceful thrill-seekers from Cardiff bring the outside in with a show bursting with seedy vintage charm.
While international rival Cirque du Soleil offers a pastiche of circus’s gritty romance, NoFit State brings a fresh authenticity, while remaining loyal to a performance style in a way that almost feels classical. All the nostalgia we come to expect from circus is here – it’s in the monochrome stripe details on swimsuits and in the occasionally-flashed stocking suspender – but Bianco simultaneously embraces the grace of a bygone era and asserts a sharp sense of progression.
Certainly, the traditional references are present, but the communicated anxieties and energies are decidedly electric and modern. Music plays a big part in this mood; while acrobats, gymnasts and clowns exhibit a kind of magnetic activity that transforms the seatless, wandering audience into little more than iron filings, the spirited live band powers the production from the only static space. Swinging from sultry, unkempt blues to crisp tango with a worldly nonchalance, this skilled musical ensemble draws together what might otherwise become a haphazard patchwork narrative.
Where voice is concerned, the audio balance is a little out here, meaning any pre-recorded monologues or sentences shouted by the performers disappear. Shards of dialogue are occasionally heard, but if there was an overarching storyline throughout Bianco, it was lost. What’s important, though, is not what is said, but how the performers say it, and nothing quite manages to drown out the cast’s energised, death-defying shrieks as they swing high above the heads of roaming audience members.
Watching their trajectory with eyes turned to dizzying heights, we wonder if our immaculate performers will ever lose their balance; little do we know that we’re the ones being tripped up. The creatives behind this piece are wise to the fact that audiences tire easily when faced with strength and talent, and so have generously laced this production with little vulnerabilities that allow us to see familiarity in these superhuman performers.
In this remarkably visual performance, we learn that there’s more to these characters than physical appearances. An aerialist launches himself into the air in a flurry of rope and muscle, but as his fellow performers form a vigil made from burning flowers, there’s an eerie emotive power here that orientates Bianco in on solid emotional ground. Similarly, while we’re concerned with working out what kind of specialist equipment enables our tightrope walker to navigate the wire in high-heeled shoes, she strips off her blonde wig, sunglasses and tight dress. In this transformation from unapproachable Hollywood star to relatable woman, the episode questions which illusions really matter.
Throughout Bianco, insightful episodes and tender exchanges combine to form raw identities that are ‘suspended’ in every sense of the word. There are no traditional characters here and few lasting interactions between performers, but as a company NoFit State truly gel. As the acrobats take their bows, somersaulting off a makeshift stage before running to seize every last beat from their band, the joy emitted by these convention-breaking storytellers is contagious. Forget the big tops and ringmasters, NoFit State’s biggest nod to traditional circus is in its successfully conjured fantasy of running away…
Bianco is playing at the Camden Roundhouse until 27 April. For more information and tickets, see the Roundhouse website. Photo by David Levene.