Limbo – Strut and Fret Production House
Paradiso Spiegeltent, Festival Club, Aotea Square
Seen: Wednesday 4th March
Limbo’s flier promises “gut-churning acrobatics, mind-boggling illusions, fiery flames hot from Dante’s inferno, and a searing soundtrack by a rambunctious live band make this circus-cabaret the hottest party between heaven and hell”. It’s a great concept, with the more sophisticated, European circus tradition of entertainment for adults at it’s core.
Limbo is staged in the impressive Paradiso Spiegeltent, set up for the Auckland Arts Festival in Aotea Square. If you haven’t been to a show in the tent, it’s worth booking one just for the experience – the design is beautiful, the atmosphere great, and they even have a bar.
Production design includes a projection: a small 3.6m diameter circular stage in the centre of the tent. The performance is almost completely in-the-round, creating a circus atmosphere. Viewing is pretty good from most seats, although for a higher ticket price, you can secure an elevated booth for yourself and some friends. The GA seats have just two tiers, so it’s important to arrive early to claim a good spot. The best GA seats in the house are the front row of the first elevated tier, immediately in front of you as you walk in. Most of the show is performed facing forwards, so you’ll get the most eye-contact from the performers this way. That said, there are some spectacular moments near the end of the show that would be a darn sight more freaky if you’re near the front – recommended for the thrill-seeking patron.
Limbo is billed as circus-cabaret, but it’s really a series of circus acts linked by choreographed transitions. A small but extremely talented cast of nine performers provide all of the music, acrobatics, dancing and singing. New York composer Sxip Shirey opens the show with a police siren, an harmonica and a microphone. He’s a fantastic character – simultaneously wild and immaculate in a white feathered suit, grey afro and sunglasses. There’s definitely an opportunity for him to MC the show, if Director Scott Maidment wanted to develop the cabaret side of his production.
Unfortunately, Limbo experienced some significant technical problems on opening night. The show started twenty-five minutes late, and the tent was incredibly hot. It’s essential to take a fan and dress lightly to enjoy this show. The stage crew opened extra doors and the grateful audience hurried out into Aotea Square to get some air while we were waiting. Forty-five minutes into the show, technical difficulties again stopped the performance, this time resulting in a fifteen minute wait. Whilst the performers managed these interruptions with the ease of seasoned professionals, the heat and the late start made the audience more restless than they would usually be.
Scott Maidment has done a brilliant job with the aesthetics. The lighting is thoughtful and effective. The costumes have an old-fashioned, travelling circus feel, with a tasteful colour palette of black, white and red. Each performer has a sense of style and character, developed through the costuming. It feels a bit like the eclectic styling and energy of a New Orleans Mardi Gras, without the OTT Latin American glitter. Sxip Shirey’s musical score is bang–on; energetic, lively, sexy and heaps of fun. He’s done a brilliant job of capturing the nature of each act in the show, while maintaining a thread that ties Limbo together. It’s a musical signature, and it’s very successful.
There are some moments of absolute brilliance in Limbo. Contortionist Jonathan Nosan has the opening act. It’s both impressive – he has a ridiculously flexible back – and appropriately sinister. There’s a moment when he’s twisted on all fours that’s a lot like a scene from The Exorcist. I appreciated these connections with the limbo/heaven/hell themes, and I think they could be developed further. Similarly, tattooed sword swallower, Heather Holliday, has the audience simulatenous cringing and gasping. She does some incredible things with fire, and seen close up in the Spiegeltent they are miles more impressive than in a bigger circus. A mis-aligned totter across the stage in ballerina’s pointe shoes was the only aspect of Holliday’s performance that disappointed me.
A member of the Honoured Artists of Russia, Danik Abishev, provides another standout performance. His hand-balancing acrobatics on tiny poles – including jumping between them on his hands – is a real treat close up. He creates a fast connection with the audience – playing on our suspense with a very deliberate sense of fun. Similarly, Mikael Bres on the Chinese Pole is a master of his trade – controlled, sophisticated and thoroughly entertaining. The entire audience was captivated by his act. Dancer and Limbo choreographer, Hilton Denis, shone in his confident and super-relaxed American-style tap solo. He is a charismatic dancer who involved the audience in his tap rhythms with panache. The highlight of Denis’ performance for me were his superbly elevated single wings, although I think for a non-dance-fanatic audience member it might’ve been his numerous backflips.
The highlight of the show for me was definitely the five-person sway pole act. I’d never seen this piece of circus apparatus in action before. The performers stand on a narrow crossbar, harnessed to the pole by straps around the thighs. The poles are completely flexible, and can be manipulated to rhythmically sway with a startling degree of movement. The music for this act was perfect, and the speed and choreography of the routine breathtaking. It showed the performers for the confident and powerful athletes they are, and throughout the audience there were gasps and spontaneous applause, not to mention a bit of hand-covering-face-peeking-through-fingers. I may have said a bad word out loud. It was brilliant.
The acts in Limbo were linked together with a series of transitions on and off the stage. This element let the show down, for me. Denis led some brief dance interludes, and although he was front and centre, it didn’t hide the lack of technique, unison and sophistication of the other performers as dancers. The was also a lot of dramatic walking the length of the stage, in what really felt like space fillers. There were some interesting images – a giant rabbit head worn more then once as a performer walked through the space, and a handful of white feathers tossed into the light – but these did not link effectively with the rest of the show. The only other female performer, Evelyn Allard, entered the space numerous times looking dramatic, only to wander off without doing anything. Allard is clearly a capable and talented performer – she even did a number on the piano accordion, but she had trouble with her hairstyle, and adjusted it frequently onstage throughout the show. Her suspended hoop performance was assured and entertaining, but it was undermined for me by her obvious struggle to make it through her final song. She did not appear for her bow, so perhaps there were more serious reasons for her somewhat lacklustre stage presence.
Limbo was a mixed bag for me. At times brilliant, thoroughly entertaining and impressive, with great energy, styling and sound. The Chinese Pole, sway poles, fire-breathing and sword-swallowing were the best I’ve seen. Similarly, the acrobatics and contortions were fabulous. The transitions were weak, but with a tidy-up could be more effective. Overall, a great night out. Grab a fan, some friends, and a beverage form the bar and you’ll have a ball.
A necessary double gold star rating for this one;
Circus Acts 5/5