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.