The Roundhouse Turns Circus Upside Down
Leave your circus preconceptions at the door. Cirque Mandingue’s Foté Foré is a frothing pot of bodies pulsating to bongos, kora and hip hop, contorting in every direction, piling on top of one another and tumbling down to form rings to b-boy into.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll give you some highlights. A pole is held up by cords held by troupe members to resemble a maypole; but instead of dancing round, the troupe takes turns to climb the pole and twist round it at every angle, and tumble down it a bit like those wooden dolls attached to wooden poles or one of those little wooden woodpeckers that goes round and round. A contortionist ties his body into knots that make the audience groan in pain: he can cross his feet under his chin. The troupe forms human pyramids, falling forward down from them making me squeal. I think the pinnacle for me was when someone did a handstand on somebody’s head.
Foté Foré (meaning black and white) is the tale of a man who travels to Guinea, meets some locals with ore-inspiring talents, learns to fit in — almost — and leaves enriched by his experience. It takes us through a day in the life of a Guinean community. The audience is represented on stage by the awkward tourist: we see events unfurl through his eyes and we learn to be accepted, and to accept, with him.
At the beginning, we see the white man with big, black, shiny, wheelie suitcase arrive and look around him, agog. He’s amazed at everything he sees. His fixed wide-eyed expression tells us this as clear as if he wore a t-shirt saying: “I can’t believe my eyes.”
The visitor gets off to a bad start by putting on cheesy R&B on his ghetto blaster and attempting to organise Cirque Mandringue into rows as his backing dancers. It all gets a bit awkward but we gradually see that the guy has some talent too. Sure, he’s stiff and white as starched cotton but this is his forte. As he starts to body-pop to his own Daft Punk-esque beats, his mojo shines. His pièce de résistance is when he pulls off his t-shirt and, before we know what’s happening, we see he can contort his belly: he can throw it out there and make it swing around. His new friends are also eager to shed their tops, showing off washboard chests to whistles from the audience… but alas, no bellies to contort! The newcomer’s got one over on them. Oh inverted world.
Cirque Mandingue shows off the best of acrobatics, gymnastics, breakdance, African dance, body popping and contortion. And what it adds to these individual arts is the arena of the circus. Circus shares the concept of the ‘carnivalesque’, the theory developed by Russian critical theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to the subversion of norms. In the circus, like in carnival, anything goes. Circus is not defined by conventions or style or theory. It is a space, a circle in which anything could happen. And if anything is that the the outsider/other figure in this story is a white male, emasculated, and that this character gains admiration and respect by virtue of the fact he has a belly elastic enough it can swing around, then so be it.
Foté Foré is on until Saturday. Other shows not to miss in the festival include Scottee: Camp with collaborators Jonny Woo, Dickie Beau, Titti La Camp et al; Undermän; and Collectif and then, who we interviewed as part of our Continuous Cruisers series.
Visit the Roundhouse website for more details of all the shows. The festival runs until 29 April.
Photos: David Pickens