Extraordinary Bodies is a collaboration between Cirque Bijou and Diverse City, who work together to create multi-disciplinary circus shows with disabled and non-disabled artists. Their latest production, Delicate (co-produced with Figurteatret i Nordland (Nordland Visual Theatre) and Theatre Royal Plymouth) is currently out on an Autumn tour. We were invited to review it this weekend on its stop at Jacksons Lane, London’s home of contemporary circus.
Written by Jamie Beddard, Delicate focuses on four individuals, each of whom has their own experience and understanding of what it means to be delicate. Gillian (Pat Garrett) is a former ballet dancer, who has never considered what it means to be delicate until the loss of her partner, Maude. Andy is a young, fit scaffolder (Edward Muir) who is reeling after an accident at work. Beth (Laura Dajao) is an amputee who is positive and confident, and wishes people would stop treating her like she is delicate. Sam (Jordan Morton Trowers) is outwardly strong but his home life is precarious. He has spent years moving from place to place, never really having anywhere permanent to call home. They are all lonely and isolated until a chance encounter sees them learn how to accept the support of others and, in doing so, accept their gloriously imperfect selves.
The production fuses spoken word, circus, dance and digital media to convey their stories. The circus and dance elements, directed by Lydia Harper are the most effective, taking place predominantly on a wooden climbing frame style structure (set design by Will Datson). Morton Trowers demonstrates strength and grace in acrobatic sequences while Muir shows off some seriously impressive Chinese pole work. While Garrett’s dance moves may look simple to the untrained eye, anyone who has ever attempted to copy their children doing even entry level ballet will know it’s a lot harder than it looks – let alone when you’re doing it on top of a climbing frame! There are also group dance sequences which work well to convey a message about the importance of working together and having someone (quite literally) to lean on. Dajao shows strength, control and trust as she performs partner balance tricks in her wheelchair.
While the concept is fantastic, the text is perhaps a little heavy-handed in places, sometimes spelling things out for the audience where silence may have been more effective. Although the exposition is necessary for filling us in on the characters’ backgrounds, the power is often in what remains unsaid. For example. Beth’s most effective moments come not when she tells us her thoughts, but when we witness her frustration at not being able to do ordinary, everyday things. Sam, the the least verbally expressive character, is the most intriguing and seems to connect best with the audience.
There is a climate change message running throughout the production, with reminders of the damage we have collectively caused to the planet intended to mirror the physical and emotional scars of the individuals on stage. This feels a little jarring in places, particularly when the characters try to bring it into conversation. The use of audio and video clips is more effective but with a lot happening on stage they do get a little lost, although the final warning about the planet being “fucked” packs more of a punch.
Accessibility and inclusion are at the heart of the production. There are no special relaxed performances; every performance is “chilled” (meaning low lights left on in the auditorium, a visual story available before the show and the opportunity for anyone who needs to do so to get up / go out during the show). There is also integrated BSL, captioning and audio-description, and one of the most entertaining moments comes when we are introduced to the BSL interpreter as part of the audio description of the performers.
Delicate aims to be provocative, providing audience members with question cards before the show which they are encouraged to fill in and return at the end. There is definitely a lot to think about and, while I found myself a little uncertain at the end of the performance, my thoughts developed over the course of the following day. Just as the characters learn to change their perspective, I found myself challenging my assumptions about what circus can and should be. And while I initially wondered whether Delicate was trying to do too much by working in the environmental angle, perhaps that is absolutely the point. It may not be a message that fits neatly into every show but it’s too important not to bring it up at every opportunity.
Overall, Delicate is a thought-provoking production which is incredibly inclusive and will no doubt resonate for many in a multitude of ways. We look forward to seeing what Extraordinary Bodies come up with next.
Delicate played at Jacksons Lane from 25 to 26 November 2022 as part of a UK tour. We received a complimentary press ticket to the performance on 25 November.