A news story you might have seen this week: Temperatures around the North Pole were higher than what they were in parts of Europe. My knowledge of climatology isn't sound enough to assess whether this so-called "warm-air intrusion" is relatively normal or cause for immediate alarm, but the story was on my mind as I watched He Who Falls, a strange, quiet, disconcerting and often mesmerizing show about the end of the world and how we might deal with it.
Canadian Stage has programmed several works of hybrid dance-circus in the past couple of years and I haven't always been able to get on board with them. My issue with companies like Australia's Circa and Montreal's Les 7 Doigts de la Main is that they often leave me feeling tricked. I'll be enjoying a sequence of choreography that seems set on evoking a particular idea, story or mood when, all of a sudden, the performer will climb a rope like an acrobat or twist into a contortionist pose. Any diligent or artful process is paused – or tossed aside – for the sake of a cheaper sort of thrill and I end up losing confidence in the creator's vision.
Compagnie Yoann Bourgeois, based in Grenoble, France, is a troupe focused on circus art, so I was a tad leery that He Who Falls would leave me feeling similarly short-changed. But this 70-minute, six-performer work never devolves into extraneous spectacle. For all its wildly impressive technicality, the show is actually remarkably restrained, refusing to break its own clearly delineated conventions. While the three men and three women perform physical feats that require formidable skill – and involve extraordinary risk – there is no sense of showmanship. In fact, partly what makes He Who Falls work so well is that the performers create the illusion that they aren't doing much at all, a minimalism echoed by their natural manner and costumes – they wear stylish sneakers and collared shirts. These are real people; better yet, the aesthetic is unfalteringly French.
The piece begins with the cast on a huge, wooden platform, which descends from the rafters on cables. The platform begins to revolve and, at first, the performers find themselves coping with this inexplicable shift in their environment by moving together. The reaction seems improvised, but it creates an impressive visual effect, as the cast leans into, or away from, this centrifugal force in one clump. When they learn to deal with their new predicament, there is room for joy: The women leap into the men's arms so that their bodies are suspended over the precipice. It's like watching time paused in the moment before a hug. With echoes of Nietzsche, life seems to move in circles.
But soon the spinning gets faster and the performers are forced to run to stay on their feet. In a sequence that seems like an artful rendering of an apocalypse movie, the performers are felled one by one, leaving a young woman leaping over their bodies at an ever-increasing speed. From that point, the platform goes through a series of cataclysmic shifts – tilting, swaying, rising – forcing the performers into all kinds of acrobatic leveraging to hold on for dear life. The danger culminates in a completely terrifying sequence that sees the platform swinging across the stage; the cast duck beneath or are tossed toward the wings, often a hair's breadth from losing their heads.
It's an unmistakable metaphor for Earth itself and how a community might deal with a world turned on its head. The show might have benefited from a little more character development, another layer of depth on which to ground the concept. But on balance, this is a unique and powerful show that literalizes a timely – and certainly universal – anxiety.
He Who Falls continues until March 4 (canadianstage.com).