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Block at Wales Millennium Centre
Block was an unexpected pleasure, encountered on a casual late August Bank Holiday trip to Cardiff Bay.
The show is a collaboration between NoFit State Circus (bringing the production to their home city for the first time) and Midlands dance company Motionhouse, which specialises creating immersive “4D” experiences. Designed as a portable open-air spectacle, it has been touring the country since May.
The audience outside the Wales Millennium Centre is confronted with a not-quite random assemblage of grey breeze-blocks—actually made, it quickly becomes clear, from soft, but rigid and robust material (design by Deborah McShane). As the cast of five men and two women—Àfrica Llorens Valls, Alasdair Stewart, Andy Davies, Amer Kabbani Fernandez, Daniel Connor, Lee Tinnion and Luka Owen—emerges, they begin to interact both with one another and the blocks, handling them and one another with both roughness and tenderness.
A narrative is difficult to discern—one might gain the impression at first that, given the smart-casual costume design (by Rhi Matthews), we are in some repressive European state, whose workers are struggling to negotiate the barriers between them, both personal and institutional.
Any simplistically pessimistic interpretation soon breaks down, however, as the exuberance of the dance artists comes to the fore. Structures are built and dismantled, the performers climb onto them, through them and around them; all to an electronically-inflected score by Sophy Smith and Tim Dickinson which seems to draw on dance music from all over the world.
Created and directed by Motionhouse’s Kevin Finnan, with NoFit State’s Ali Williams credited with concept, design and production, Block is described in terms of a depiction of urban life: “living in the city, its contradictions and its challenges… living large, living fast and sometimes living in the cracks”.
This sense of confusion and freneticism certainly comes across, as relationships seem to develop and fall apart, and the characters collaborate as both creators and destroyers.
Perhaps the most profound impression conveyed is of sense of joy and fulfilment exhibited by the talented and hard-working cast. As both dancers and acrobats (circus direction is credited to Paul Williams), their skills are breath-taking, entrancing an audience most of whom would not have expected to be even witnessing Block, let alone being glued to the performance for the entire forty minutes, as many seem to have been.
The loudest expressions of appreciation were prompted by those frequent feats of gymnastic agility which were performed with apparent casualness whilst balancing (or pretending to fail to balance) several metres in the air; the performers are also at ease when it comes to engaging with the crowd at ground level (although, mercifully, participation is not required).
Combining the accessibility of circus with the intellectual rigour of dance theatre, Block is a fascinating, engrossing and occasionally alarming entertainment.Read Full Review
Block, NoFit State and Motionhouse, Pontio, Bangor
There’s something uniquely exhilarating about seeing spectacle through a child’s eyes. Children are transparent, they don’t hide their thoughts and feelings. So when they think something’s good, you know about it. The audience for Block at Pontio on Sunday afternoon was almost entirely made up of young families, with most of the onlookers under the age of 10. And the wonder, excitement and fun these children were having watching this mix of dance and circus was electric. Block is a collaboration between Wales’s own circus performance outfit NoFit State and Leamington Spa-based dance theatre company Motionhouse, and fuses the aesthetics and disciplines of both into one thrilling 45-minute show.
It’s designed to be performed in the open air, taking as its theme the city and its changing face. Using 20 oversized prop blocks, the seven performers portray various inner city and urban scenarios which connect with the human experience. The city can be many things: threatening, daunting, dangerous, exciting, celebratory, busy, empty. You name it.
The difference with Sunday’s performance was that the weather outside was too wet and blustery for it to be staged in Pontio’s loading bay, as planned, so the whole thing was moved undercover into the Bryn Terfel Theatre. This gave the performance a different dynamic straight away. Block is meant to be experienced within the context of the location, whether that’s a car park, a waterfront or a playground in the middle of a housing estate. The location informs the context of the piece. So when it’s suddenly moved indoors, within the confines of a theatre space (especially vertically), Block becomes something different. The shifting cityscape becomes more of a theatrical experience, rather than an organic one, and the lens through which the audience sees the show is filtered. They subconsciously understand that what they are watching is a distinctly theatrical performance, and that the moments of sudden danger sewn into it are more than likely intentional.
But seeing Block indoors does not remove it of its power. It’s a real spectacle to behold, as the performers leap, spin, tumble, slide and climb around both the stage and the shifting block structures, using every inch of the floor space and never letting up the energy and enthusiasm. Designer Deborah McShane’s blocks (they look solidly granite but are actually weighted sprung mini-platforms) can become anything – streets and pavements, walls, doors, archways, towers and even ruins. At any one time the eye might see a skyscraper or Stonehenge, an office block or a domestic house. They are mini mirages in the hands of the performers, never any one thing for too long, but always something and everything.
It goes without saying that the artistry of the performance is impressive. The concentration these performers have while also providing apparently free-form moves and vocal audience interaction is masterful. When you’ve got a room full of six-year-olds gasping “Wow!” and “Oh my…!” every time someone leaps from a great height only to be caught by a passing pair of hands, it must be hard to stay in the zone. Make no mistake, it would take just one wrongly-positioned camera flash or stray front-row leg for certain sections to take a tumble.
The 45 minutes begins with the performers skittering about the stage, in and around the blocks, as arched bridges which may or may not be insects, the creepy-crawlies and cockroaches that we all know are living with us in our cities – among us, around us, beneath us – and which will always be our inheritors long after Mankind has destroyed himself. Their animalistic beginnings develop into various human experiences of the city – walls rise before them, doors slam to block their way – and we see lonely pedestrians braving the vast city as a desert, children sliding around the playground, police arresting and frisking suspects, even a Berlin Wall that some make it over, and others don’t.
The final 10 minutes is an exercise in theatrical euphoria. There’s sadly no credit for the music, but as the score rises to a tribal crescendo reflecting the city as festival host, the performers build their 20 blocks higher and higher into a Babel-esque tower which they thread in and out of, up and around and through, dangling and swinging, balancing upside down and tumbling to within an inch of danger. The audience wills them to build the tower as high as possible – something that must work even better in the open air – and then the tower topples into ruins. What this falling tower represents might be patently obvious (ie, the Twin Towers) or it might be symbolic of the rise and fall of civilisation, as the performers revert to their earlier primitive forms, scuttling around the ruins. The building blocks of life are scattered, but life will always win in the end.
Block is a stunning fusion of circus chutzpah and contemporary dance creativity. You can see both disciplines in the mix, perhaps the circus more so, but such a show demonstrates how different forms can enhance the whole experience of a piece. The entire experience is probably best seen outdoors, where the danger element is cranked up to the max (it’s automatically more heart-in-mouth when it’s outdoors), but the children present were lapping it up, giving voice to what was held back in every adult’s mind – simply “wow!”Read Full Review
Artistic Director Tom Rack
Creative Producer Camille Beaumier
Front of House Manager Tim Adam
Performer Sam Goodburn
Performer Rosa-Marie Schmid
Performer Vilhelmiina Sinervo
Performer Mathieu Hedan
Performer Luke Hallgarten
Performer Conor Pelan
Performer Joachim Aussibal
Head Rigger, Performer Lyndall Merry
Costume Mistress / Performer Blaze Tarsha
Performer Rosa Autio
Company Stage Manager Libby Spencer
Performer Luca Morrocchi
Performer Fabian Galouÿe
Performer Nicoló Marzoli
Performer / Rigger Junior Barbosa
Bar Manager / Performer Pauline Frémeau