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Photo by Richard Haughton

Collectif Acrobatique de Tangier/Taoub
April 16, 2006

By Tom Jackson
Queen Elizabeth Hall
London
UNITED KINGDOM

The story behind this show began when French writer and director Aurélien Bory was on a trip to Morocco and, wandering along the beach at Tangier, came across five members of the Hammich family practicing their acrobatic skills. There have ben acrobats in the Hammich family for seven generations. Towards the end of this performance it looks briefly as if that family tree has been made flesh when five adults are carried aloft by one single man, his face contorted into a grin of what might pass for showmanship but has the mark of agony.

On the very edge of Africa, the city of Tangiers has the reputation of a place of license, where the normal rules don't apply. In Taoub, the Hammich and half a dozen colleagues assemble to make a stealth assault on the most fundamental law: gravity. William Burroughs, arch-iconoclast and poet of the city he called the Interzone, would most definitely approve. The plot of the show, such as it is, concerns a vague jealousy between the two female acrobats, which acts as a spur to increasingly outlandish and elaborate stunts. The stage opens to a group of young men wearing snowy white djellabas over their street clothes. These traditional outfits later serve as screens for projections: the Tangier skyline, live video images from the stage or a football strip. The acrobats hurl themselves to the ground, creating a kind of human calligraphy, each making urgent little runs from the back of the script to the front. Before long, though, they leave the ground. One lad is flick-flacked back and forth over his companions' heads: a human metronome. In the most memorable, dream-like moment the girls walk at shoulder-height on the cupped hands of the standing acrobats, who create a nebulous, floating human walkway. With precise measured steps, to the delight of the audience, the women take a stroll in the air.

The name of the show refers to a cloth and various such curtains and cloths re-imagine the otherwise bare stage. At one point a huge elastic fabric billows down from the flies to the front of the stage. From behind, hand shapes are visible, recalling the grasping hands that protrude from the walls in Polanski’s Repulsion. This Easter Sunday early show is packed to the rafters with families and a little girl sitting in the row in front of me is intrigued by what she sees. “Ghosts,” she explains, matter-of-factly. Then (slightly) reassured. “Magic.” Supported by unseen colleagues behind the cloth a female acrobat climbs and descends invisible steps in the curtains, at one point lying down, resting: a god in a cloud above Mount Olympus. Shades of the Marx Brothers appear when, through spotlights behind the curtain, a false shadow is created and the two women ape each other's movements exactly. The audacity of the stunts is ratcheted up until bodies are tossed fifty feet into the air like Sancho Panza at the inn until, rather suddenly, the show is over. Little over an hour long, but crammed with enough breath-stopping stunts and poetic images to remain with the audience long after easter egg wrappers have been discarded.