Brighton Festival 2016
Smoke and Mirrors is an intensely physical and thought-provoking circus of two. It is performed by Cohdi Harrell and Laura Stokes, who together form the Ricochet Project. Together they weave acrobatic exploitations and high-flying distortions as they turn the spotlight on the contorted state of America – and on us all – as we do our best to find realness and connection.
The Ricochet Project, based in New Mexico, won the Total Theatre Award for Best Circus at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015.
Smoke and Mirrors is sublime on so many levels that I hardly know where to start.
It’s an exquisitely conceived, ultra contemporary blend of circus and dance. And its subject matter is deeply challenging: a wake up call. Just what are we doing with our lives? How can we live like this, with such loneliness and separation? Is there another way?
The performance was beautifully structured, and well-paced, flowing fluidly from scene to scene, and set to Harrell’s stunning timeless soundtrack. From the opening moments, that soundtrack sets the scene for the performance: a woman talking numbers, faltering, going back over them again and again, stuck in a never ending loop.
There was simple, but stunning use of lighting, at times spotlighting the performers, and at times reflecting the crazy disjunction of their lives. At one point, the light turned on us, the audience, seeking us out like a searchlight, demanding that we see bring our own story to their performance.
The costumes are at once retro and ageless – business suits for every man and woman – and as they peeled them off, you could see their bodies revealed underneath. The sinews, the breasts, the tattoos, the incredible strain of such a huge physical endeavour. Those bodies were costumes in their own right. Alongside the costumes, the trapeze and ropes, the props were bare and minimal: a hanging light, two chairs and an old suitcase, which were used to tell the story and moved by the performers to highlight the progression between different scenes.
Harrell and Stokes gave outstanding performances – as far from the painted, sequined type of circus act as you could get. It was painfully beautiful to watch the two of them perform – sometimes solo, sometimes together – poised between grace and fluidity and a raw, tearing, physicality. Their embodiment of the maddening agony of disconnection and anxiety was so real that I could feel it coursing through my body, back in Row G.
Harrell and Stokes’s skill as circus performers was absolutely breathtaking. They have extreme levels of strength, control and balance; and they really know how to use space. And from that position, they were able to reflect the wholly out of control, unbalanced, jagged, compulsive awkwardness of the characters they played – teetering on the trapeze, tying themselves in knots, fighting the ropes, contorting and convulsing their bodies. At times, they looked like they were drowning in mid air, caught like a fly in a web, angels stripped of wings, suicidal, victims of a terrible disaster. It was like watching Edvard Munch’s The Scream in motion. And when the performers did start to reach for each other, to blend together, to support one another, moving to the soundtrack of Charlie Chaplin’s words from The Great Dictator, it was like watching courting swans dance. Exquisite.
This is a must see. I would gladly watch this performance over and over again, and I can’t wait to see where The Ricochet Project goes next. In the after show Q&A, it was very clear that Harrell and Stokes co-create pieces that work for them first, and for the audience and critics second. They give themselves the freedom to work in a wild and fertile place which isn’t dependent on what other people think. In today’s world, that’s an intensely radical act. As is working without a director. But if last night’s performance was anything to go by, it’s also the source of some extremely challenging and exciting art. Bring it on.