Review: Smoke and Mirrors @ The Crescent Theatre Birmingham

This year’s International Dance Festival Birmingham has been a revelation, full of fascinating, shocking, moving, beautiful, inventive theatre, and although I had no idea what Smoke and Mirrors was going to be like, promised “poetic acrobatics, contemporary dance, contortion and high flying feats” I was intrigued enough by the blurb which also offered “an exhilarating examination of the current state of America in the pursuit of happiness” to take a punt on it.

So. Two twenty somethings return from work to their apartment, take off their clothes and then the ropes come out and the role playing begins. Although there’s a minimalist kind of soundtrack I’m not sure this is dance, at least as I know it – mainly it involves doing highly unlikely things with chairs and ropes, hinting at prisons and self-immolation – the sheer physicality of the work here certainly puts it into the world of physical theatre.

The trapeze set-pieces with enormously meaty ropes is the most jaw-dropping and inventive, as the two performers make the risky-looking physicality look easy. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. The sheer extremeness of the entire show must have a psychological impetus – perhaps it is in their dreams alone that these two over-civilised urbanites can carry out the games of risk and safety their hidden selves dictate. Certainly there is an air of unreality about the extreme physicality which hints at subconscious urges.

Despite its extreme elegance and the unnerving degree of control displayed in performance this looks to have a physical cost to the performers – there is a definite A & E quality to it – I noticed various bits of discreet surgical webbing type applications. I wouldn’t like to be the one explaining how an injury happened to a seen-it-all nurse. Maybe the main message here is just don’t try this at home.

At the end they dress and go back to the real world, leaving us to wonder whether it’s only in dreams they carry out these extreme games of risk and safety. I’m still not strictly clear whether it’s actually dance or not or a very clever form of physical theatre, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it, and in a way that’s the whole point.

I shall never look at commuters hurrying from the train again in the same way now I know what they, or at least their subconscious selves, get up to when they get home.

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