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[Performance Analysis:] LUMINOSA, Jacksons Lane Art Centre, London.

For readers wishing to purchase tickets to Luminosa, the tour has now been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.

Before starting this review, it is worth pointing out that this circus performance sees a rotation of talent with every show. Thus, this review can only be particular to the night I saw the performance.

A persistent dilemma circus performances have found themselves in for quite some time now pertains to presenting a talent not unique to their own performers but shared by many others to an audience usually consisting of other circus performers or keen circus enthusiasts. This is where theme and personality come in. A circus performance must develop its own unique style and character but must also not deviate too far from ‘circus’ and become what we might refer to as ‘drama’. Circus hence relies quite heavily on its ability to attract audiences not just by the impressive and extensive repertoires of its talents but also by its spectacular aesthetics, moody costumes and particularised theme. Without these, a circus performance is in danger of presenting the same work by the same talents over and over.

Luminosa decided, as many circuses do, upon a blend of circus and cabaret, presenting a [quite literally] dark performance that blurs gender, accentuates the sensual and the sexual, and attempts to lure its audience into a hypnotic and fearsome trance-like state. But, hyperbolic descriptions out of the way, I shall now address how successful and how well communicated this decision was.

First to grace the stage is Peter Reynolds, a composer and singer that we would equate to an emcee — and this is how I shall refer to him in this review. Wearing a plain black suit, his hair slicked back and complete with a simple pink clip, his look does not scream visual intrigue. He is pedestrian, in fact. He slips onto the stage whilst the house lights are still up, discreet, only offering an expressionless glance around the audience. From the very beginning, then, his significance is understated, unintroduced and left unclear.

He is important to mention, however, because a great deal of time is consumed by his songs. His voice sifting between natural and grouching in an attempt to be ‘eerie’ and volatile, Reynolds regularly has the stage to himself, performing songs whose gibberish lyrics ‘focus’ on passion, emotion, waiting at train stations…and the devil…but also on nothing at all. His mystical — or, rather, nonsensical — lyrics like ‘arrival on the F’, combined with repetitive, rising and falling, sometimes gentle and other times dramatic music, certainly produce that aforementioned sense of trance but not quite the engrossing and mystifying one desired by the creatives; instead, the emcee’s performance gives way to a bewildering, numbing trance that leaves its audience in a state of boredom, perplexity or complete disengagement, lost in their own, more exciting daydreams, as the post-performance comments I overheard confirmed.

So, the attempts towards a cabaret-esque library of songs is clear, but to what avail? There are a few reasons as to why I find the inclusion of these songs to be problematic, and I shall mention a few, not focusing again on the lack of purpose or coherency in their content. Firstly, I shall ingeminate, I believe the failure to introduce the emcee appropriately, and perhaps to find a better placement for him, as opposed to having him cramped in the downstage-left corner, the failure to instate the significance of his presence from the very beginning as worth listening to, is at the heart of the issue here. We are simply not forced to care what the random, ‘creepy’ and obscured man in the corner is singing about.

However, I have a more significant concern. Any eerieness that is set up by the emcee is completely dismantled by the melodramatic and mime-heavy comedy we are presented throughout: from performers pretending to be frogs, jumping across the stage; to one performer bearing her breasts proudly and broadly to the audience, escaping another who scrambles to conceal her; to another performer ‘dying’ — or perhaps being just knocked unconscious? Hard to tell, due to the faltering corporeal expressivity… From slapstick to burlesque to campy and to dark, one could say that this performance has ‘everything’, just as the emcee promises us in his first speech; I, however, would argue that it attempts to provide us with so much that it ends up providing us with nothing at all. Mood, voice and tone are all compromised by the performance’s sheer inconsistency of style. Even the fact that all artists stay mute in mime whilst one stand-out performer blurts his utterances throughout, later joined by a few others who pipe up towards the middle-end…nothing seems decisive and clear in this performance.

Introduced by the emcee to us as ‘the last performance in London’ and so ‘a very special performance’, one with a ‘bit of everything’, there is very little extra of value offered to us than the bare minimum talent that we would expect from a circus performance. Why frogs? Or fishes, as the emcee says? These elements have nothing to do with the rest of the content and so subtract from any identity that the performance could procure itself. Perhaps the intention was to bombard us with an array of absurd happenings; if so, this intention is most fallible and is not what cabaret is about. Absurdity, paradoxically, must still have its reasons to be in contexts such as the one offered by this performance. The absurdity of a cabaret has a very specific and special function that the absurdity in this performance does not at all.

This lack of identity is not just limited to the performative elements of the show but extends to its general aesthetic, too. Grey boiler suits for the performers and a black suit for the emcee; one performer in a leotard, another in a harem costume, another in his boxers… no clear aesthetic where costume is concerned, then. But the thing suffering the most from a lack of identity in aesthetic is the performance’s theme implied chiefly by the show’s title, Luminosa: light.

Performers first enter the darkened stage with tea-lights in their hands, then blow them out to start on a slightly messy overture, running, jumping and cartwheeling busily across the stage…and that is the only form of light we see besides the negligible torches and spotlights used to illuminate the emcee. At least, that is until the middle-end of the performance when Zaki Musa enters wearing high stilettos and a light-up fencing mask whose mesh is replaced with a covering of multicoloured LEDs. A little while into the act, however, he takes it off…so…that was that.

It is so peculiar to me that Musa would take this mask off. To keep it on absolutely removes him of humanity and identity, causing us to focus on his body alone. This both accentuates the deliberate campy/raunchy sexual objectification he promotes and, more importantly, reminds us that this is a circus performance that inherently wants us to focus on the articulacy, flexibility, form and fascinating capabilities of the human body. Plus, it keeps us on theme! Lights! Why on Earth get rid of the main feature of this act that makes it so visually unique and spectacular? It is really easy to feel cheated in moments like this. Then, there is the question of whether Musa sprawling ‘sexily’ over and across the stage for the majority of this second act can really qualify as a circus act.

Having said more than a sufficient amount about the theatricalities of this performance, I shall now move on to the circus acts themselves. The performance mostly comprises aerial acrobatics. Performers — Danielle Summer and Tilly Mae, in particular — demonstrate excellent corporeal control, but all are shaky at times, especially towards the beginning and in moments where full extension and reach of the limbs are required.

Synchronisation where it is required — in the trapeze act, for example — is certainly lacking, also. The routines we are presented are certainly impressive by nature, but with so many aerial acts, an issue of repetitiveness surfaces, with all performers encroaching on the talents already presented to us by their counterparts. Aerial artists need to emphasise in their performance the skills that their specific acts require over other aerial works. For example, the rapid spins in Summer’s aerial hoop act vs the sudden drops required from Musa in his aerial silks act [although, I must add here that this latter stunt was terribly executed, unfortunately]. More moments like these would be very beneficial in further distinguishing and showcasing the skillsets and talents that these performers possess, especially in order to cater for audience members who are new to circus and cannot discern the differences between one aerial form and another on a purely visual basis.

Performers attempt occasionally to infuse their acts with a sense of danger — again, the silk drops, for example — but this does not ever pay off, I am afraid. When this ‘danger’ is presented in this performance, one of two things persistently happens: 1) the danger is awkwardly re-emphasised as out of the performer’s control by unwanted stumbling or ill-footing, and we get a sense that we have just witnessed an inexperienced performer save themselves by lucky chance as opposed to conquering fatal risk with sheer talent and ability; or 2) the act does not feel dangerous enough, for it is performed too low from the floor of the stage or because a lack of corporeal expressivity dampens the effect.

The most impressive act by far is Valerie Jauregui’s foot juggling, which demonstrates tremendous skill, training, flexibility and focus, and this should be seen as an exemplar of creating a sense of risk: the entrancing routines are so visually complex that it is easy for an observer to feel confounded as to how the actually rather simple mechanism is functioning, and the risk of dropping the ball amongst all of the perceived chaos becomes intensified — not a sensationalist risk that causes excessive focus on fatality, but a risk that utterly enthrals and captivates, nevertheless.

A few final notes on showmanship. Performers are persistently seen clambering about backstage. No! If performers are off-stage, they must remain unseen. This is entirely distracting. There are curtains to conceal the wings for a reason, and when they are used, they are effective, but too often, they are not. Until you are invisible off-stage, you must still perform. In Luminosa, performers quickly lose their physicalities when approaching the wings and slump naturally off stage. Poise, stature, energy and performativity must be kept constant until performers are off stage. Lastly, to give a big grin at the end of an act is a classical convention that competes with the dark theme of this performance. I would recommend more of a sinister yet engrossing, empowered glare. And only a slight smirk, if some sort of ‘smile’ is desired. Otherwise, style and its communications are confused, again.

“A performance offering good talent but little in terms of the unique and special.”


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