If throwing a dart at the Fringe programme is your preferred method of choosing shows, it’s probably a safer bet to do it with the circus section than the theatre one. Anyone may think they can have a go at writing or devising a play, but you’re not going to do backflips in front of an audience unless you’re confident of your capabilities.
This baseline culture of proficiency has pushed the standard of circus up and up at the Fringe in recent years. But surely there has never been a set as brilliant as the Konjowoch Troupe’s opener, part of Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams. The 14-strong company is helmed by Bibi and Bichu, two London-based jugglers originally from Ethiopia, who began sponsoring the Circus Wingate school in Addis Ababa in 2010. It was here they discovered the Konjowochs, who fling one another about as casually as juggling clubs and will land your heart in your throat within seconds. They are astounding.
Contortionists Etsegenet Ashenafi and Semeret Getachew are coolly balletic as they coil like poised pythons; later a lineup of four women make cubist geometries, their boxed legs and arms zinging with the neon pink of their costumes. Bibi and Bichu’s juggling is another high. The pair create patterns that shift so subtly it’s hard to spot the changes. They throw in flourishes – a lick of green round the back, a high spin into the air. It’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brilliance.
Across the Circus Hub’s promenade, in the intimate Beauty spiegeltent, Cie Ea Eo from Belgium have taken a more contemplative approach to juggling. Their show All the Fun is quietly whimsical, with flickers of the Gandini piece Smashed in its curiosity about endurance and sense of play.
"We are gathered here to pay tribute to uselessness," Bram Dobbelaere tells us at the start. He lists amongst his favourite useless things earrings, funerals and scribbles not dedicated to anyone. But really this is an exercise in the awe of mastering useless skills just because we humans can, and the physics that make such things possible – or impossible. One member balances a club on his head for an extraordinarily long time while another teleports inside the club to tell us—via tin-can telephone—what it looks like. Why is one more plausible than the other? Later they cut up a club and reconstruct it on the same performer’s forehead, altering its balance points though not its mass.
Sometimes it feels as if you are watching their workshops rather than a show, and sometimes that’s okay. A malevolent game where opponents try to knock each other’s club to the ground without dislodging their own has us on the edge of our seats. But though the group are clearly fascinated with the physics of juggling, the tempo of the show always stays at the same level.
It’s clear from the design of Cirque Éloize’s Cirkopolis that the EICC is a necessary space for technical reasons. But it also contributes to the polished, choreographed vibe that puts this show more in line with extravaganza or dance theatre than Fringe circus. Loosely inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, graphic backdrop projections lead us from dusty, paper-strewn clerks’ offices to the bowels of the factory and, in one inspired section, to the teetering heights of a city skyline where Selene Ballesteros-Minguer performs superhero feats on a rope in front of the clouds. Ensemble juggling on a moving table and the German wheel (like a double Cyr) amp up the stunt factor. Glossy and gutsy, Cirkopolis is also elegant and it’s a safe bet for a show that will delight almost anyone.
But if you’re looking to kick off party night, Circolombia’s Acéléré at the Circus Hub is the place to head. The troupe are graduates of Colombia’s Circo Para Todos school—which empowers vulnerable young people by teaching them circus—and their youthful energy rumbles through the cavernous big top. Live reggaeton and sensational singing from Diana Patricia Vargas Montoya and Julianna Valentina Toro Valasquez bring out a punky, wild atmosphere – it holds the show together like a renegade reinvention of the classic ringmaster.
An aerial act sees a man and a woman gripped together by a mouth strap as they travel up into the heights of the Lafayette’s huge big top. It's an intense exercise in physical empathy – you feel both the painful, fragile link between their bodies and the soulfulness of their dance. There are gut-lurching balances and tumbling acts on moving bars, a whip-fast cloud swing and macho teeterboard between two competing men. But really, the mood of Acéléré is what lifts and spins it round: the way the cast can’t help moving to the music when they’re on support duty, or the way they move around one another as an ensemble. They’ve caught the old world big top ethos and doused it in Colombian spirit.