Bence Vági's company strips the set and costume away as the focus goes to the performers themselves
At the grand old age of 36, Bence Vági is already more than ten years into his retirement. As a dancer, anyway. He's now the artistic director and choreographer for the Hungarian circus company that he set up in 2012. There are no hula-hooping seals or Krusty the Clown types in Recirquel though, a company spreading a new wave of circus from East-Central Europe. Instead, the set for My Land, a new show coming to the Fringe, is stripped back to a soil dancefloor and spotlights. The costumes are a barely there collection of flesh-coloured underwear and Illuminati-style hoods, and the music is a sparse mix of folk song and moody classical melodies. With such a minimal setup – no safety nets, no tightrope, almost no props – there's nothing to distract from the performers; seven freakishly strong, bizarrely weightless Ukrainian acrobats.
'Ukraine produces world-class acrobats, but they are rarely the focus of a show. They are in the background, or behind masks,' explains Vági, taking a seat after doing some TV interviews, and also looking pretty relieved as he eats dinner after My Land's preview night in Budapest. His brand new show got a standing ovation from the crowd just an hour before.
'I was so, so proud of them. It's funny to me to watch these macho men, all under 25, getting up on stage and suddenly being so incredibly graceful and elegant. They train eight hours a day. They're normal guys, Catholic boys, some with young families, they smoke. Sure, of course they smoke! I don't tell them what to do – they know what's best for their bodies.'
He laughs when he remembers one of the performers showing up for rehearsals one day with a big coloured tattoo of him and his girlfriend on his ribs. 'I couldn't believe it! He performs with a bare chest. But it's cool - he just spends extra time in hair and makeup before the show.'
Vági found tonight's stars while looking for 90 performers for the closing ceremony of the World Swimming Championships. He's made a name for himself in Hungary for mixing contemporary dance, physical theatre and traditional circus skills and was asked to choreograph last year's huge, bells and whistles show on the banks of the Danube, where lasers and fireworks went crazy in a massive spectacle underneath Budapest's Royal Palace. Vági couldn't find enough acrobats for it in Hungary though, so he went looking for talent over the border. In his childhood, Vági's own family left Hungary during the Communist era and relocated to Germany. He later settled in the UK, studying dance and becoming a graduate choreographer and director of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, before returning to Budapest.
He was originally looking just for male acrobats in Ukraine, but couldn't leave Yevheniia Obolonina behind after he watched her performing with her contortionist partner, Roman Khafizov. The pair perform a jaw-dropping (occasionally eye-watering) routine in My Land where Obolonina tiptoes delicately on Khafizov's arched solar plexus or drops casually into the splits over his elastic-looking ribs.
Vági also signed up twin brothers, Andrii and Mykola Pysiura, who do a staggeringly precise routine of delicate hand acrobatics, spinning one's torso around the other's head, counterbalancing in handstands and human towers, all with a serene expression on their faces, while presumably hoping the veins in their neck aren't about to pop. Another highlight is the opening act, who looks like a slow-motion Rudolf Nureyev in training for the Olympic men's gymnastics. It would be rude to reduce Andrii Spatar to a six-pack, but there's clearly a reason Vági has put him first on the bill, with his top off. His lean torso is ridged like a medical diagram of muscles, and he works through gymnastic poses in a balletic, controlled way, keeping a glacial, rather than breakneck pace for his fluid routine. There are also impressive jugglers who battle in a Streetfighter-style scene and a solo dance finale, balancing on top of a ladder and synchronised with folk music.
'Ukrainian acrobats start training from a very young age and the standards are incredibly high,' says Vági. 'But often these exceptional performers end up working on cruise ships, or for touristy audiences in dinner clubs that aren't even paying attention.'
Vági wrote the show especially for the performers and looked into Ukrainian myths and folklore while creating the show – although any narrative arc is pretty vague, besides references to the land and soil where they are from. Vági also went to extreme lengths to find traditional Ukrainian, Tatar (an ethnic minority group in Ukraine) and Moldovian music for the score, visiting villages to learn about local instruments and folk songs. A beautiful male chant that is heard in the background of one of the scenes, where the performers slink about in Assassin's Creed cloaks, was recorded especially by monks in a remote mountain monastery, after Vági heard them singing on YouTube and got in touch with them.
It's both a butch ballet and a circus in slow motion, with no traditional strongman with a dumbbell and striped singlet this time, just raw talent from Ukraine, doing very agile writhing in the dirt.
My Land, Assembly Roxy, 3–26 Aug (not 8,13, 20), 8.10pm, £12–£14 (£11–£13). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £10.
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