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Bodies Over Bitumen, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellmann Bodies Over Bitumen, Naomi Francis, Skye Gellmann
photo Ponch Hawkes
Three interdisciplinary circus performers lead an audience on a 60-minute wander through the streets of North Melbourne. At intervals, we stop to watch their ‘tricks.’ But in a manner rare for circus-based works, Bodies Over Bitumen deeply engages both performers and audience with the site. Dressed-down in jeans, sneakers and hoodies, the artists carry stuff around that suggests they could be travelling, or even homeless.

The way we are led is fugal—a passing cyclist (Alex Gellmann) provides our initial cue to follow, disappearing when we notice another performer and stop to watch, then returning at unpredictable intervals. As one act finishes, another performer—not always Alex—subtly distracts us and we move to follow again. It’s a kind of guided flâneuring, each segment dovetailing into the next.

Early on we pause to watch Naomi Francis pull aerial silks and rigging gear from a bulky backpack. She contemplates an exposed beam over a gated laneway, figuring out how to rig it. Perhaps put off by a car entering earlier, she seems to change her mind, stops, stuffs everything back in her bag and strides off fast enough for us to lose her trail. She looks lean, maybe even mean. On her way where? The cyclist swings around a corner into view as she disappears into the night.

Francis’ initial caution is countered by her eventual claiming of the night-time streets: it’s she who later suspends herself from a tree to perform a space-eating aerial routine in black gym gear, no spangles or frills. And it’s her body that supports four heavy strands of webbing in the centre of a roundabout for Skye Gellman’s slacklining routine, evincing awareness of the risk, physical strength and vulnerability that lies at the heart of circus.

Alex Gellmann tore major shoulder ligaments in a cycling accident ahead of the show. His sling-strapped arm can’t help him as he rides his bike one-handed, or both one-handed and seated back-to-front, or carries it on his shoulder. His tricks are necessarily curtailed, but this evidence of a real-world encounter with risk and danger cements his role in the work. Somewhat ‘broken’ himself, Gellmann marks his path at intervals with miniature cairns of shattered pavement illuminated by bike lights. In a tricky balance-board routine, he incorporates these fragments, tossing them with his usable hand and catching them on his head.

In what for me is Bodies Over Bitumen’s key scene, the performers do nothing. Skye Gellmann lies starfished in the middle of a narrow side street; Alex Gellmann flops in the gutter, half on the footpath. They lie there for a long time. Francis crouches against a brick warehouse with her too-big backpack.

Now and then a car turns into the street. Francis calls “Car!” and the guys roll quickly to the footpath and sit facing the road till it’s passed; then return to position. The scene intensifies, sparks literally flying, when Skye Gellmann begins scraping the ground with a hefty flint. Entering vehicles hesitate and we feel their intrusion and ours—as well as the folly of lying in the middle of the road. It’s a poetic and visceral pause that stretches into long minutes, pulling our guts right down to the tarmac.

At the end of Bodies Over Bitumen, Skye Gellmann applies virtuosic pole-acrobatics to a parking sign, twisting, circling and shimmying without ever touching the car parked close alongside. With a rare combination of strength, technical ability and dancerly poise, he illuminates, tests and defies gravity. Even arching on the footpath at the base of the pole, he maintains a defiant, balletic relationship to gravity’s incontestable force.

With histories spanning homelessness, squatting and street daredevilry, Bodies Over Bitumen’s creators are credentialled with lived understandings of space and who it belongs to, as well as how to claim and disrupt it. With a shared language born of past collaborations, they create a mood sometimes of aimlessness, sometimes of interrupted purpose, and equally of experimental occupation. Even the best of ‘new circus’ often boils down to a sequence of thematically related ‘acts,’ failing to create emotional immersion. By contrast, Bodies Over Bitumen places us in direct relationship to the surface of the road, making the space of the streets subtly dangerous, but also a place to play. It illuminates and destabilises the city environment, gaining our investment in uncertainty and caution from the start. From a modest approach—this work really hinges on the ‘less is more’ philosophy—Gellmann, Francis and Gellmann, with off-stage creative collaborator Kieran Law, have created something quietly extraordinary.

Bodies Over Bitumen, creators, performers Skye Gellmann, Naomi Francis, Alex Gellmann with Kieran Law; Melbourne Fringe Hub, North Melbourne Town Hall (starting point), 18 Sept-3 Oct

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 46

© Urszula Dawkins; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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