Sunday, March 30, 2008

Circo del Sombra circle The Abbey

It had to happen. There have been so many 'new circus' companies through Ireland lately, eventually somebody was going to think up the daring wheeze of calling their company a 'traditional' circus. And that is exactly what next month's visitors to the Abbey, Circo de la Sombra have done. Around these parts, of course, you have to be pretty precise about what you call "traditional". Don't look for any bears here.

"Circus arts are expanding really fast since the past 20 years," says Johnny Torres. "Today we can find all kind of types of shows involving circus skills. Every circus has his own magic, from the most little and simple to the most complex. Our desire is to build a bridge between traditional and contemporary circus. An homage to the travelling women and men bringing illusion everywhere."

Although Torres sees Circo de la Sombra as following in the line of The Traditional Circus, founded by Philip Astely, in England in the 18th century, Sombra's style uses strictly human performers, displaying some of the traditional techniques of the game, from acrobatics and trapeze, to rolla-bola (in which a somebody balances on a board which is balancing on cylinder), and the German wheel (a big wheel shaped frame, which one or more people can get inside and spin across the floor).

Circo de la Sombra was formed three years ago from several smaller outfits who had been plying their trades around Europe. "We met in Geneva and Madrid training at the circus schools. We were basically three very different and particular duets at the same level of understanding, the same tune. We spent a year and a half meeting and doing acrobatics, then decided to jump together into the ring."

What the company has to offer, according to Torres, is an approach to making performances which is very intimate and human scaled. It is a style which evokes a golden age that perhaps never quite was, but which people are feeling a lack. The best term to describe that might be, then, nostalgic.

"Yes, we call our show nostalgic. We think we can make people fall in love with traditional circus, with the charm of hand-made and simple things..."

While the company avoid the narratives that have became common in "new circus" as a way to give coherence to a group of disparate acts, Torres and his fellow performers have given themselves a storytelling crutch to lean on, involving a mysterious character called Alejandro Sombra, from whom the company "inherit" his collection of sets and props.

"We have to bring it to life again," says Torres. "The thread is to make it possible, to entertain people with everything we find around. The starting point of the narrative is the doubt, the accident, the fall. It is an exercise for the audience and for us, we evolve together to the final act."

Friday, March 07, 2008

Selina Cartmell's Macbeth

"The thing about Macbeth is…" Gasp! It is a few minutes into our interview, but there it is: director, Selina Cartmell has done it. She has used the "M" word that generations of actors have superstitiously avoided, fearing that it would bring ill fortune down upon their productions.

But Cartmell, director of theatre shows that plunge unflinchingly into the dark side, has no such fear. So are the actors in her forthcoming production of "the Scottish play" also using the title willy-nilly?

"Yes. I took that curse out of their hands. It had to be done. Otherwise you are just walking on egg-shells all the time in rehearsals."

As it transpired, the actors were walking on something more solid, if every bit as unusual for a stage. Cartmell's Macbeth will be stage in The Empty Space, an 'empty space' theatre established by Michael Scott, which has the pretty much unique featuring of using the bare earth as a stage.

Despite her reckless use of the M word, Cartmell's career seems to have been charmed, so far. She trained as an actor in Glasgow, before deciding that she had a far stronger calling: to direct. She first came to Dublin in 1998, as an Erasmus student, and returned a few years later when had grown tired of being an assistant director in London and "seeing the same faces, the same people all the time..."

Since then, she has made the kind of impression on certain section of the Irish theatre world that a hot knife makes on a pound of butter, creating blockbuster shows for her own company, as well as at the National Theatre, Project and The Gate, where she recently directed, Sweeney Todd.

Last year she won the The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which saw her working in LA and New York with her hero, director, Julie Taymor, the woman who created the stage version of The Lion King, as well as a film version of Titus Andronicus, but who also works on large scale opera productions.

"I'm not that interested in the mentor and pupil side of things. But luckily, we were able to just talk about our work, and thought that we were able to develop a friendship, and a relationship. And then it just became two women working in theatre talking. Which was great."

Getting to know the legendary director, Cartmell suggests, made her realise that she might so far have been imposing some limits on herself. "I was with her in LA when she was directing Grendel, and there it was in a huge theatre, with 3000 people in the audience. And I thought, I'd like to do that…she taught me you must always, always keep pushing yourself to make sure you are never defined as just theatre director…"

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