Reflections On: Cul de Sac

Jacksons Lane, London 24th Feb 2017

“Circus for grown-ups” is the tagline for Cul de Sac. What does this mean I wondered, on entering the show. Complex themes, difficult subject matter, clever nuances, circus that makes me feel something? Cul de Sac is all of these things and more in a glorious combination that puts it amongst some of the best shows I’ve seen, and if it continues to tour and get the exposure it deserves, then it fees like it might be part of the cannon that helps to broaden audience perceptions of ‘the circus’ (definite article very much intended).

The opening series of fragmented, juddering, vignettes comprising movement sequences and still images intercut with blackouts, sets the audience up for a show that will be visually lead and filled with drama. The phrases in this overture are sometimes shocking in their brutality, some tender, some funny, and the influence of renowned choreographer Pina Bausch is instantly felt.

The best I can do to broadly describe the narrative of the show is as a series of physicalised explorations of aspects of adult relationships. Although the situations are abstracted, the feelings and intentions of the different scenarios can be clearly felt: lust, frustration, the difficulties of compromise, the desire for intimacy, fear of rejection and the silliness sometimes found in sexual scenarios. The different image-led sections ebb and flow and meld into one another, so transitions into ‘circus skills’ are all but erased, and the artists appear equally confident expressing themselves through dance, gestures and stillness as they do on their circus disciplines. The strength and range of Jose Triguero and Gemma Palomar as performers is breathtaking, and they have an open, committed kind of quality that makes what could be quite impenetrable and elusive dance sequences into something that feels very real and visceral.

One of my favourite elements of the show is the subtle way that it begins to imply our relationship with different types of images. The beginning vignettes have a cinematic montage overtone which is returned to at different stages of the show through the exquisite lighting design, referencing the way that our relationships with others, as well as our relationships with ourselves, are increasingly understood through the lenses of photographs and video. In one scene Triguero undertakes an epic juggling act to an operatic soundtrack. He skilfully masters the space and the music, while rhythmically breaking away to physically manipulate Palomar into various tableau vivants akin to snapshots of a screaming audience member at a rock concert. Her captured image standing in for imagined throngs of baying women receiving and adoring his performance.

Circus can easily be about frenetic energy, higher, harder, faster, stronger and shoehorning in as many tricks as possible, so the commitment to still images and evolving movement in Cul de Sac feels very refreshing. Such care is given to imbue each movement with significance that a hip thrust is as evocative and poignant as an attitude turn on chinese pole, and the circus disciples are never given more currency than the other actions. Instead the circus elements feel like a means to explore different spaces. The specially constructed platform on top of the chinese pole is in some instances distancing and isolatory, and at others the height is imbued with status and privilege. Juggling is an act of control and competence, and sometimes an overwhelming assault as four balls turn into unmanageable dozens. While these ideas and approaches to integrating circus into shows are not new, rarely are they as well executed and satisfying as they are here.

Cul de Sac certainly doesn’t feel like its leading nowhere (couldn’t resist that, sorry!) it is the sort of evocative, sophisticated, complex circus I really want to see more of.