DEA BIRKETT: The value of the second chance

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Dea Birkett learns from Circa’s current Southbank Centre show not to stick to first judgements


If you’ve a bad meal at a restaurant, you wouldn’t book a table again in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s the same with the theatre; if you see one company doing a shoddy show, you won’t queue for tickets for their next. Even five star reviews might not convince you that this time – unlike last - your money will be well spent.

So I went to see Closer, by Brisbane-based circus com- pany Circa, with a bit of an aftertaste in my mouth. I’d seen its Close Up at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and hadnlt enjoyed it. Four performers had done some good tricks, but they were flattened by being interspersed with about why they loved the Chinese pole, or how they had been hand-balancing since they were 16 years old old. The backdrop was a giant screen showing a black and white close-up film of the performers’ bodies. We saw every ligament stretch, every muscle pop, every pore sweat. It was supposed to draw us in towards the performers and feel their pain. But it didn’t. The giant screens and the scripted words only pushed us away. It felt distant and false. It lost that wonderful sense the best circus can bring – that everything is being done fresh, right now, for you, and at great risk. Danger is at the heart of circus. It thrives on the possibility that everything, at any moment, may tumble. The audience is drawn to circus because they want to taste that tension. 

Circa learnt a few things from Close Up, reworked the performances, ditched the screens and scripts, and introduced a further performer. Now it has become Closer. And Closer is extraordinary. A powerful, intimate, compelling piece of circus at its very finest. Circa has always been revolutionary in giving women performers powerful parts, often literally at the bottom of the body pile, supporting the men. In Closer, women are the framers of the pieces, the pins that hold them together. It’s fabulous that the show has been given such a long run at the Udderbelly Festival on London’s Southbank.

What Close Up shows us is that anyone – even the magnificent Circa company – can get it a little bit wrong. But in the current cultural climate, mistakes are riskier and more expensive than ever before. Theatres, muse- ums, dance companies can’t afford them. One bad show, one so-so exhibition, one rocky performance – and your funding could be threatened. Your future depends increasingly upon your past.

The evaluation box at the foot of the funding form bears a lot of the blame. It isn’t really evaluation at all, it’s an invitation to dissemble and to self-praise. I’ve never seen an evaluation that isn’t glowing. If you confess that your exhibition wasn’t quite as appealing as you hoped, your play a little bit stale or your performance far from perfect, I wouldn’t bother putting in a second application. As a result, really good work is thwarted.

It would be more useful if funders required not that you evaluate (which invites deceit), but that you learn. What did you learn? can be answered more honestly. Quickly followed by, What would you change? The organisation that answered “Nothing” would be the one we should treat with the most suspicion. This kind of questioning, rather than blanket evaluation, might lead to better answers, and better art.

Because shows, exhibitions and performances aren’t restaurant meals. I don’t want to repeat a dodgy meal, not ever, because a dodgy meal isn’t a step on the path to haute cuisine. But a performance that doesn’t get it quite right, realises, responds and changes, often becomes a better performanc ethan one that is over-confident on the first strike. Let's tolerate mistakes. Give shows second chances. We’d never have a remarkable show like Closer without them.

Closer runs in the Udderbelly Festival, Southbank Centre, London until June 12.


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