Preview: Afrika! Afrika!, O2 Centre, London

An African village comes to Greenwich
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The Independent Culture

The African version of Cirque du Soleil Afrika! Afrika! arrives in London. The main tent in which the performance takes place, next to the O2 Centre, will accommodate more than 100 performers and is taller than a nine-storey building. Other interconnecting tented areas, reached via elaborately decorated walkways, will house a contemporary African art exhibition and restaurants serving food cooked by 25 African travelling chefs.

It's all the brainchild of Andr Heller, whose show first opened in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2005. He and the choreographer Georges Momboye searched all over Africa for two years to find the right performers. Together, they handpicked all the participants from 17 nations, including Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Algeria and Benin.

"The image the world has of Africa is of poverty, sickness, corruption, hunger, but there is an incredible amount of talented performers who never get the chance to perform in the Western world," Heller says.

Show highlights include a contortionist who can slip through a tennis racket frame and jugglers who "juggle large tables on their feet throwing them to each other while lying on their backs". Some performers "swallow eight litres of water and juggle with 13 big pots while spitting water like a fountain".

Heller has long been a force in the revival of circus. He co-founded the Roncalli Circus in 1975, and in 1984 put together the Chinese National Circus, starring master acrobats then unknown in the West. He is a singer and actor, and a garden designer; his work includes huge floral pictures and plant sculptures such as Earth Spirit, a mythical birdlike creature, for the World Wildlife Fund Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover. Heller's strange flying sculptures have been seen all over the world.

"The experience of Afrika! Afrika! is like walking into an African village," he says. "The show energises its audience, who soon start shouting and dancing."

By Charlotte Cripps

Booking from 17 January to 1 March (0844 847 1717; www.afrika-afrika.com)

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