The Arts: The show must go up

They fly through the air with the greatest of ease ... At the heart of the Millennium Dome is a play of artistic aerobatics

There has been so much hyperbole about the Millennium Dome that it's easy to think that there is nothing left to get excited about. However, at the very heart of the building, preparations are taking place for a regular live show that will elicit genuine gasps of amazement from its audience.

The Millennium Show, by The Millennium Company (it seems the m-word is unavoidable), is a three-act play with no words, performed by dancers and aerialists using a vast area as their stage, and with much of the action going on overhead. The story of Sky Boy and Sophia, set in the "pastoral age", "industrial age" and "new age", is told by two casts, each of 81 performers. There weren't enough aerialists in this country to form a cast, so after nationwide auditions, young gymnasts and rock climbers, as well as performing arts students, all with no experience, were hired and trained by veterans from The Circus Space. That company is the source of the leading members of the cast. Although it is unlike any other piece of theatre, creative director Mark Fisher, collaborator Peter Gabriel (who also wrote the music) and artistic director Micha Bergese will have been aware of the razzle-dazzle of modern attractions such as Cirque du Soleil.

During the day, the performance area is empty, a place for visitors to the Dome to rest, eat and wander. However, music will start to play in the early evening as the performers gather and the hi- tech props are put in place. This 20-minute pre-show period is when the audience is encouraged to assemble - the organisers expect up to 12,000 people at a time to watch this spectacle of bungee-jumping, wheel-spinning, eye-popping drama.

Propped up The 81 performers, both dancers and aerialists, will have to communicate The Millennium Show without words, to an audience of up 12,000 at a time, up to five times a day. Their props include three metal mobiles, each measuring 19 metres long by 5 metres high. According to creative director Mark Fisher, the structure is based on the "street theatre" idea popular in Europe, where companies travel from town to town setting up their stage. The beauty of this arena is that it is permanent, giving scope for an extraordinarily complicated structure.

Hanging on

Many of the 162 performers who make up The Millennium Company were recruited from nationwide auditions, and the majority are under 21 years old, from a variety of backgrounds. Their intensive training in bungee jumping, stilt-walking and circus skills took place from September 1998 until October this year, when the entire company moved into the Dome to rehearse on the real stage. It is hoped that the company will be able to stay together and perform other productions after their year in the Dome is over.

Spinning wheel The wheels on the end of the metal mobiles, which are raised 25 metres over the audience, are where the sky people in the play live. The two actors playing Sky Boy spend much of each show's 28 minutes up in the air, and dive down towards the floor of the auditorium at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.

Basket weaving The area at the very centre of the Dome, where the performances take place, is the size of Trafalgar Square, under a roof 50 metres high, the height of Nelson's column. While the play is performed in the round, the audience will stand in colour-coded areas, to avoid being in the way of swooping aerialists, or sit in raised blocks underneath which the props are stored between performances. At the climax of the show, aerialists raise coloured ribbons to weave a "basket", in which Sky Boy and Sophia, the show's romantic leads, consummate their love, unseen.

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