It could be so easy for a company who combine contemporary dance and circus skills to simply fill an evening with crowd-pleasing spectacle and gravity-defying moves. Particularly a company with the daring and refined physical skill of this Hampshire-based company, Joli Vyann. And yet – although this production is ripe for provoking gasps and general incredulity, it harnesses these impressive skills and directs them towards storytelling. Presented as a double bill of pieces in development, the first, Stateless is an exploration of the human experience of immigration. It is told visually and literally, as we watch the four performers throw themselves between each other or jump between pieces of set. The risk factor is high, and the story is told to emotionally charged effect.
The overall sense is that this is what life for these characters feels like, not only what it looks like. We also experience what it sounds like, as the piece is supported by a soundtrack containing interviews with real people sharing their own stories on immigration. This emphasises the context and the mood of the piece in a way that lifts it beyond abstract representation, and into something quite raw. When we hear a quote such as “I left the house without packing anything, not even my sanity” then see a girl fling herself tirelessly against an immovable wall of people, the motion is contextualised, making it all the more uncomfortably real. Suddenly, the issues surrounding immigration – particularly for those escaping from a volatile environment – feel much closer to home.
In light of this, the close physical contact is somehow comforting in this story, even when they are standing on top of each other’s heads. The inherent trust implies that they have found a home within each other. They work together to assemble the scattered pieces of set and build a bridge, a process that is as beautiful to watch in creation as it is upon completion because the company work so fluidly with one another. There is a sense of hope and determination to this section as the pace is slower, there is more playfulness between the characters and it feels as if they are achieving something. The section culminates with the meeting of the two female performers on top of the bridge. “Stateless” indeed.
Another voice comes over the soundtrack and now, the group are on the run from the police. This is cleverly and impressively imagined by use of a cyr wheel (a big hula hoop) which one of the male dancers sets spinning horizontally in the centre of the stage. The performers jump away from its grasp, afraid of being caught. When one of them is captured, he manages to control the hoop – to control the system – but not for long. The others swoop through the spinning hoop as if trying to save him but the hoop is softening in momentum. Time is running out. The music ends, stillness falls, and all we hear is the clatter of the wheel declaring his capture.
Stateless is currently in development, predicted to have grown into an hour long piece by next summer. Although the piece in its current state was enthralling, I am excited to see where it will go next. They have laid the foundation in terms of theme and story, and shown physical potential for this to be a deeper exploration of the experience of immigration through a unique, potent medium. They are due to be at the London International Mime Festival in the spring.
The second part of the double bill was a piece entitled H2H and was in stark contrast to Stateless, both in mood and theme. It focuses, after much deliberation between the girls and boys falling in and out of love with each other, on a couple giving birth to their first child. The piece was slow to build – as relationships sometimes are – and after the element of surprise that the first piece provided, it was at risk of paling in comparison. It deals with issues that are more familiar, and therefore, potentially less challenging. However, the light relief of smiling performers and comic moments was very welcome, and the piece eased into its own stride.
Most delightful was the company’s novel use of costume, through which each person’s jumper was twisted and danced through until it became a ball of knots and, by appropriation, a baby. Here, the piece began to probe deeper into our society’s approach to parenthood and gender roles, showing the mother as primary caregiver while the father recoiled from the baby’s cries. Prepped for provocation having observed that, for the most part, the men supported the women, I had to ask – is this not just a lazy stereotype?
The power of this, however, was to place the question directly within the world of performance, where motherhood is regularly postponed or is a career-killing choice for female dancers. It also makes a point about motherhood in general, and the laughter in the audience was out of sympathy while an exhausted mother retrieved the baby from its father’s hands. The baby was passed between the performers, as if travelling from mum, to dad, to babysitter until the knots of the jumper were untied, and the clothing was returned to its owners. Evidently, what held these people together had likewise unfurled and the physical, emotional support disappeared. They turned their backs on each other and left.