Backbone takes us backstage to a world of acrobatic play

Photo by Carnival Cinema

Australian production Backbone opened at the Vancouver Playhouse this week. The acrobatic troupe Gravity and Other Myths make a welcome addition to the Cultch’s 2018- 2019 season after the success of their previous visit to Vancouver with A Simple Space in 2015.  

The ten acrobats (accompanied by musician/composers Elliot Zoerner and Shenton Gregory) deliver gravity-defying feats, hair-raising flips, and squirm-inducing contortions of the spine. The stand-out factor of the show, however, is the friendliness and charm of the production. Backbone opens with most of the cast lying on the floor. After a moment, they hop into action, arranging props, getting dressed, and warming up. The resulting impression of being let into rehearsals is refreshing, and carries through the performance.

The show is composed of a variety of shorter performance pieces that flow (and flip, and tumble) into one another. Some are whimsical and theatric, with striking light design and stirring music created live by Zoerner and Gregory on percussion, violin, and synthesizer. A few highlights involve carefully choreographed interconnected stunts which form a Rube Goldberg machine made of people. The recurring theme seems to be play. At times the acrobats race, tumble, play fight, and squabble. They demonstrate each other’s mettle by slapping and tickling performers who are balancing two or three others on their heads. Some of the playground atmosphere is integrated into the stunts, as when the acrobats play jump rope (an impossibly arched performer serving as the rope). At other times, it seems like just good fun: a knight in armor appears for a gag, and does an impressively funky dance.   

In contrast to circus shows that play up the inhuman quality of their performers, Backbone’s unpretentious charm and warmth make the group relatable to the audience. There are no expressionless masks or black Lycra bodysuits to be found – this is acrobatics down to earth. The costumes look like random thrift store finds, and are freely and inexplicably swapped between performers throughout the show. As one acrobat in a t-shirt and leopard print tights casually shakes out her hair and sweeps it into a ponytail during a warm-up, she looksjust like any of the audience members. Except that she is tottering atop a head-to-toe stack three performers high.

Despite the light-hearted vibes, there is plenty of sweaty-palmed suspense – for example, as one acrobat liesbalanced on a golf-ballwidth pole 20 feet in the air. However, the performers’ trust in each other is well-deserved: the one time a trick falters (a closely missed flip from one human tower to another) the spotters step in with an expert catch. The musicians repeat a few bars, and the acrobats gamely reset and execute the trick to roaring applause. 

Backbone runs at Vancouver Playhouse Theatre until November 4th.