Climbing on to each other's shoulders, a group of men build themselves into a human totem pole. Then they let the pole fall – and it falls like a toppling tree, the men keeping formation until they are perilously close to the ground. It produces one of the happiest sounds in circus: a whole audience gasping at once.
Afrika! Afrika! is exuberant, fast-paced and delightfully fuss-free, simply presenting act after act, in short, lively routines. Created by the Viennese artist André Heller, it presents circus artists from all over Africa, and sometimes beyond, with breakdancers from France and unicycling basketball players from the United States.
The show presents itself as a celebration of the continent. Unesco is a patron, and ticket sales help to fund a foundation for Art in Africa. Yet Afrika! Afrika! doesn't stress context, or present a view of African history or societies. When the gumboot dancers appear, they don't explain that the style evolved in the mines of South Africa. The point is festivity, showing off a range of skills and styles. The tent venue at the O2 is lined with fabric patterns and projected images.
The mood is bright and energetic, but there's room for individuality. Acts have their own tone, rather than being built into a narrative arc. The Angolan contortionist Makaya Dimbelolo (also known as Huit Huit) does a spider dance, scuttling in on hands and feet, knees hooked over his shoulders. The movement is extraordinary – but so are his eyebrows, wittily raised.
Other routines have a freewheeling sense of invention. Those basketball players, for instance; they whirl basketballs, spinning and juggling them with lively timing. Then they return on unicycles, playing a short basketball game on wheels. And then they bring on skipping ropes, bouncing over them on their cycles.
The level of circus skill is impressive. The Ethiopian juggler Abdurazak Reshid Adem starts with three, then four, five and finally eight balls, keeping them all in the air or bouncing them in patterns. Strappado artist Jean-Claud Belmat winds himself on ropes in the air, spinning and tangling himself into poses. The pace and contrast of the entire show are well judged.
The dancing, choreographed by George Momboye, provides linking scenes. Strutting, stamping dancers introduce acts and sweep them off stage again. The dances are striking, particularly a stomping dance in which the dancers seem almost to juggle with their own legs.
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