Review: It’s Not Yet Midnight at the Roundhouse

As someone who’s never even mastered the basic handstand, circus acts like Compagnie XY always fill me with two emotions, in fairly equal measure: awe – because I’m watching people do things that shouldn’t even be possible for the average human being, let alone someone as hopelessly uncoordinated as me – and dread, because it always seems very likely that at some point someone’s going to end up falling on their head.

Photo credit: David Levene

Of course, nobody actually does fall on their head in It’s Not Yet Midnight, the third show from the French collective… but it’s not for lack of trying. An action-packed programme sees the acrobats tumbling, flying and balancing high above the ground, seemingly without fear and often even with a hint of amusement. You know you’re looking at something pretty special when after a while even a three-person tower doesn’t warrant a round of applause any more. It’s not that it’s not impressive; it’s that they make it look so easy, like this is a completely everyday occurrence – which I guess for them it is – and that matter-of-fact attitude becomes slightly infectious.

But this is not just a troupe of acrobats stringing together trick after trick to dazzle us; there’s a story and a cheeky sense of humour to the show, which takes us through the events and emotions of a not-very-average night out. The evening begins with a mass brawl, followed by reconciliation, dancing, romance, uncontrollable laughter and a mesmerising dream-like sequence that sees one acrobat make her way across the stage balanced on her colleagues’ outstretched hands. In fact there’s so much going on, all the time, that it’s often hard to know where to look; while we’re watching a couple lindy hop at one side of the stage, it’s easy to miss another of those three-person towers being quietly constructed elsewhere. With all 22 acrobats on stage for most of the show, it’s complete chaos – but clearly of the meticulously organised kind.

Some stunts are set to music, others performed in pin-drop silence, interrupted only by the audience’s squeaks of terror as another body goes flying casually through the air. Though of course that terror isn’t really necessary – not just because these are obviously highly skilled acrobats who know exactly what they’re doing, but because such is the care and attention between the performers that if anything does go wrong, they’re always prepared. Though the stunts are undoubtedly incredibly risky and not to be tried at home, the trust between the acrobats – who live, work and train together – is absolute, and the show’s daring stems from the fact that every man and woman on the stage knows there’ll be someone there to catch them if they fall.

Photo credit: David Levene

Compagnie XY was founded on the principles of friendship and collaboration, the idea that “alone we go faster, together we go further”. This is true from a technical point of view – many of the stunts quite literally wouldn’t be possible without a team of people to play their part. But it also comes across in the spirit of 22 performers who, despite each being incredibly talented, make no attempt to outshine anybody else, and who often seem to be having just as much fun as the audience.

Despite gradually upping the stakes throughout the hour-long show, It’s Not Yet Midnight ends not with a dramatic finale, but with the group simply standing together on stage. Far from being a disappointment, this striking visual image sums up what the company and their show are all about, even before a moving curtain call message about the importance of working together. Consequently, the show ends up as heartwarming as it is sensational, jaw-dropping and hugely entertaining.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Romain Guimard, Compagnie XY

It’s been seven years since Compagnie XY, one of the leading contemporary French circus companies in the world, performed for a London audience. Now at last the company described by Lyn Gardner as “the rock’n‘roll circus where everything’s possible” return with the UK premiere of their new work, It’s Not Yet Midnight… – a show with an important and timely message about the importance of togetherness and cooperation.

“The show is about a collective of acrobats sharing their acrobatic world with the audience,” explains acrobat Romain Guimard. “It involves acrobatics, for sure, but also the way we do them as a collective, the way we train, create and live together as a collective, a group of individuals sharing our differences, fears and hopes, cooperating to foster the emergence of something greater we couldn’t achieve on our own.”

Photo credit: David Levene

It’s Not Yet Midnight (or in French, Il n’est pas encore minuit) opens at the Roundhouse on 10th April, and is the company’s third show, following the success of Le Grand C and Laissez-Porter“After Le Grand C, we wanted to create a new show with more people among the ones we met during our tours,” says Romain. “We first gathered the team, finding not necessarily the best acrobats, but the ones who could also fit in the collective, who could have something to bring to it – positive energy, generosity, nice craziness, kindness…

“We met everyone during short sessions of one or two weeks and trained together to first get a common acrobatic language, and then to use that simple language to create new words, sentences, poetry, researching all the things we could do, leaving our mind free to dream without any constraints. By that time we had two things we wanted to bring in the show: the planks, for their acrobatic possibilities, and lindy-hop for its high and joyful energy and its welcomed craziness.

“Then we joined for four months to create the show as a collective, deciding on everything together, having each of us following and leading the group within a fine balance. We had the help of an outside eye, Loïc Touze, a choreographer who gave us feedback on where the group was and who helped us reveal a true and honest image of what the collective was.”

The company are excited to be back in London, though for some members of the 22-strong troupe it’s a new experience: “Only eight of us were here last time. We remember such a great welcome we had and we’re very glad to be able to enjoy that one more time. For the others, I think that they are looking forward to it but anyway, we’re always looking forward to performing in an unknown place, in front of people we know as well as strangers. But of course, it always adds a little something to perform in a capital.”

Photo credit: David Levene

Compagnie XY are known for their jaw-dropping (and mildly terrifying) stunts – It’s Not Yet Midnight will see the acrobats catapulting each other through the air, and include the four-high human tower –  but what some may not know is that they’re a true team in every sense of the word, living and working together in a unique set-up. “The whole show would be completely different if we were operating in another way,” explains Romain. “Our way of working and living together is inherent to the show. 

“The company started with two teachers and four of their students, who wanted to keep going with the transmission of experience by extending it from training at school to touring a show. Then we met people on tour and also during acrobatic workshops we gave. At that point, we wanted to gather other experienced acrobats and recently graduated students and give a shot to extend the experience with three times more people.

“The main goal of the company is not only doing a show with collective acrobatics; the goal is to do it as a collective, allowing each of us to grow beside the others, through the others, growing the collective itself by growing all together as interdependent individuals. The show is the purpose of the collective, but doing it as a collective is as important as the show itself and I think that point makes the company one of a kind.”

And what does Romain think makes circus itself special as an art form? “Come on… elephants!” he answers. “But more seriously, I think that circus is about our fears, about overcoming ourselves, it is about challenges, it is universal, talking to everybody without any special requirements – and therefore that makes it a very popular art form.”

It’s Not Yet Midnight… is at Roundhouse from 10th-23rd April.