★★★★½ Backbone at Southbank Centre
A beguiling, enchanting and mesmerisingly delicate display of supreme body control, sensuous athleticism and masterful circus skills – just 15 minutes too long for perfection.
How four years fly by! Back in 2014, Australian acrobatics ensemble Gravity & Other Myths brought the cheeky, playful, dangerous and sexy A Simple Space to London’s south bank, and won us over with their ‘jaw-dropping spectacle of a show’ which wowed audiences in the Underbelly tent.
Four years later, the troupe are back but tackling a much bigger stage, no less than the Royal Festival Hall itself. The challenge, then, is clear – can they pull it off on a grander scale, and retain the intimacy and humanity…
Well yes, dear reader, they can.
Sure, Backbone is different in all the ways it needs to be to fill a bigger space and to reach out to a larger auditorium. Where A Simple Space aimed for such intimacy “that you can feel the heat, hear every breath”, Backbone instead endeavours towards a “frenetic celebration of human interconnectedness [that] tests the limits of strength: physical, emotional, individual and collective”. Miraculously, a sense of intimacy is retained, and the collectiveness of the performers generates a warmth and sense of camaraderie which feeds out into the audience.
The spectacle itself is as imaginative, beautifully choreographed and artfully presented as circus gets, still eschewing rampant sensationalism and in-your-face thrills, but successfully ramping up the trademark subtlety and sensuality to work on a grander scale.
The live musical accompaniment is hypnotic, the lighting truly stunning. Neither, though, overpowers the majesty of the acrobatic performances – all at once powerful, expressive, organic, controlled, playful and emotionally charged. There are intense moments of high passion, and others of warm humour. There is an edge of competitiveness between the performers which lends an edge of urgency, whilst at other times a dreamlike state descends and things take on an eerie, almost meditative air.
Which is all leading up to the one ‘but’, a minor gripe really – you can have too much of a good thing. At 80 minutes, Backbone feels like a perfect hour allowed to overrun – it’s tempting to think that the constraints of an hour slot at the Edinburgh fringe might have suited the show just perfectly – here, there they’re allowed the space perhaps to extend things a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, Backbone is never boring. It’s just that, on (admittedly rare occasions) it becomes something less than entirely captivating. Nitpicking, I know – but truly, every other moment shouts out for the five-star treatment.