When setting out to fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall for three nights, en route to a score of gigs around Europe and a month on Broadway, you'd think it would help to have a name people can pronounce with confidence. But for Aurelien Bory, founder of the Toulouse-based theatre company 111, this isn't a priority. In fact, he rather hopes people will make up their own version.
"In France we're usually known as Compagnie Cent Onze," he says. "In Germany, it tends to be Hundert Elf. In London and New York, we're One One One. Given that everyone takes away a different impression of what we do, and given that our work nudges at the edges of so many disciplines, I rather like the idea that even the name is free-floating."
So what is 111, however you choose to say it? "There are basically three elements, which is where the 111 comes in," says Bory, unhelpfully. "To a scientist, 111 represents one plus one plus one. If you want to be prosaic you could say our shows are about juggling, acrobatics and musicality. But you could equally say they're about the poetry of mathematics, the poetry of natural laws as opposed to that of the written word." This might sound fanciful until you clock Bory's background as a physics graduate and student of architectural acoustics. Then the term physical theatre takes on a new tilt: less of the theatre and more of the physics. "Sonic juggling" - one of 111's many accomplishments - is a far cry from what was once the staple fare of mime festivals, yet 111 doesn't quite fit the "new circus" label either. The company's latest production is directed by Phil Soltanoff, founder of New York's radical theatre troupe Mad Dog, a man who, according to the members of 111, "doesn't know a thing about circus, and really doesn't like it". What Soltanoff does share with the Frenchmen, apparently, is a fascination for "the theatrical potential of geometry".
Crammed into the back row of a packed Theatre de la Cite, on the campus of the Sorbonne in Paris, I begin to see what he means. Plan B - the title of the 75-minute show - is about the proximity of the mysterious to the mundane. On a cunningly engineered set, it takes that most basic of forms - a flat surface, a plane - and configures from it all kinds of everyday objects. The slope of a roof, a door and the wall of a house are ubiquitous features of all our lives whose properties we have probably never questioned. Yet now, in the theatre, we do.
When a stream of business-suited gents appear on the apex of a life-size roof and slide down it at varying speeds, you find yourself wondering about angles and surfaces, friction and velocity with an urgency that evaded you when faced with GCSE Physics equations. And when the same be-suited figures start to turn slow somersaults and backflips while keeping bodily contact with the roof-slope, or create toppling human towers which are no more in thrall to the laws of gravity than a man lying flat on his back (or are they?), your brain begins buzzing with questions. Surely on a rake of 60 degrees there must be gravitational pull? But how much less than a man somersaulting in thin air, and why? And while we're about it, what makes this impact-free spectacle so spookily beautiful to watch? The show is one long spatial riddle which entertains, puzzles, and ultimately conspires to confuse even one's most basic instinct as to where is "up" and "down".
For Bory, the stimulation of grey matter is what distinguishes Company 111 from a circus act. "What we're saying is 'look at that', not 'look at us'. What we're doing is fieldwork, in a way, and we pass on our discoveries. And because juggling and acrobatics are so strongly governed by natural laws, investigating space by these means is a way of questioning our personal relationship with it. Thus the physical leads to the metaphysical, which is a questioning of our very existence."
Allusions to classics of cinema also add to the sense of connectedness. There are references to Buster Keaton, Wim Wenders and even Bruce Lee (in an almost kitsch kick-boxing scene, complete with authentic sound effects). But the over-ruling influence is that of Melies, the first ever French movie-maker and Bory's personal hero. "He was a magician who used cinema principally to create magic effects. He didn't want us know how he did it, but we take the opposite line. We want to show that even when you know how it's done, the poetry remains intact." Though Bory had always been interested in cinema, he had never given a thought to theatre before the local circus school in Toulouse offered him a grant to develop his ideas. The three other guys in the group are all circus-school graduates, though Bory is keen to play down their professionalism. "We're just people who happen to be doing this. Sometimes we put 'mistakes' in the script because it lends interest to things - a ball falls to the floor in rehearsal and it creates an interesting problem, how will the performers retrieve it while balancing a door between their stomachs? The most mundane slip can open the door on a whole new gag. That's why we called the show Plan B.
"I'm interested in the human element in juggling. If you treat mistakes as an event - 'Oh, the ball's fallen. Oh, there goes another one' - it's no longer a mistake, it's life."
'Plan B': QEH, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), 16-18 Jan. The Mime Festival: various venues, Sat to 25 Jan. For details, visit www.mimefest.co.ukReuse content