The French circus Que-Cir-Que have pitched up on London's Highbury Fields for their UK debut at the Islington International Festival. Forget the raucous chainsaw-wielding excess of Archaos, or the baroque spectacle of Cirque du Soleil; this is a minimalist operation, offering elegant action with a cast of three.
Their big top is really a small top, enclosing a serene, white space with a central, black wooden stage. Hear every breath, every squeak of rope or twang of elastic; watch every bead of perspiration, every shimmy of muscle in this intimate arena of precision choreography.
A loose narrative charts the antagonistic interdependence of the trio of performers, trapeze artist Emmanuelle Jacqueline, strongman Hyacinth Reisch and clown Jean-Paul Lefeuvre. This is an exercise in human geometry, physical and emotional: a love triangle within a circle. They court each other with sensual displays of skills, toy with acts of mutual sabotage, but know they are bound by an inescapable inter-reliance as they use the others' bodies as support, weight and counterweight to achieve perfect balance.
Lefeuvre, in snug white Y-fronts, is shaven-headed, with an expression like old man Steptoe's. A somewhat demonic incubus, he scuttles up and down the central tent pole, hanging upside down like a fruit-bat or swinging like an orang-utan just out of the strongman's reach. Foxy Jacqueline teases her suitors with sinuous acrobatics, wriggling inside a bodysuit cut to reveal perhaps the sexiest back in show business.
Prancing haughtily on point shoes, she becomes the circus pony, flaming hair tufted into perky feral ears. Then, skimming the floor, she whistles round on the low-flying trapeze, performing all the gymnastics you can't usually appreciate when they are 60ft over your head. Snatches of sleazy jazz from Miles Davis wind round croaky samples of Tom Waits; percussive coughing, drums, ice-crisp Gaelic chanting, mix with flickers of live serenades from Reisch and Jacqueline.
Lefeuvre circles the stage on a white bike, with no pedals or brakes, aimed at an audience member near you, propelling the bike by swimming the air with his arms. A minute later, he's juddering down the tent-pole like a toy woodpecker down a stick.
Finally (and now we know why he's been saving himself), Reisch spins in on a giant black hamster wheel. Like the man in Leonardo's anatomical diagram, the goateed strongman tumbles the wheel through 360 degrees, before wrenching it from a vertical to a horizontal axis like a spun coin. Subtle, sensuous and highly skilful.
Highbury Fields, London N5, until 5 July. 0171-288 6700.
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