Fuerza Bruta: that could be me up there

This part aerial spectacle, part club night, is designed to be accessible to everyone. What happens when a journalist joins in?

The jewel of The Limerick National City of Culture, Fuerza Bruta will be premiered tonight at the Culture Factory, a re-imagining of the former Dell factory space. Video: Sean Curtin


The confetti gets everywhere. It is still strewn around the floor of London’s Roundhouse, in white and silver shreds, from the previous night’s show when the performers of Fuerza Bruta conduct acrobatic warm-ups. Some of them, like the elfin Brooke Miyasaki, stretch out their limbs methodically with the assistance of foam rollers, while others drill out ominous percussion exercises on huge drums. As she moves briskly around the scene, the company manager, Mariana Mele, watches stage hands sweep a creditable amount of confetti offstage: “We never get rid of it all.”

For days after my experience with Fuerza Bruta, a sensational aerial theatre show from Argentina, I find this confetti everywhere: in my shoes, in my wallet, in the hair of colleagues. I begin to wonder if I might have inhaled some, and research “glitter lung”, an alleged occupational hazard of burlesque performers.

But right now I have other worries. “This is Peter,” says Mele, introducing me to various technical personnel and highly-trained performers. “He is going up in the bubble.” Everyone, apart from me, seems remarkably calm about this.

Fuerza Bruta , which comes to the Culture Factory as part of Limerick City of Culture next week, is essentially what would happen if you introduced bungee cords, stunt work, aerial aquaplaning and the eroticism of a Levi’s commercial to a warehouse rave for beautiful people. It also thrives on an inclusive spirit; an intimation that the audience can get in on the act. In the Roundhouse it is an immersive experience. The audience enters an empty circular space, huddling in the centre in search of a good view. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, it turns out – mainly because there are no seats. Almost everything happens over your head.

Music loosely inspired by Argentinean folk, but mostly concerned with electronic textures and fractured beats, envelops the space and initiates a breathtaking sequence of set-pieces: a cluster of female bodies swings overhead like a dizzying pendulum; a man in an immaculate white suit rolls into the space on an enormous treadmill and begins running, crashing through impediments, including pedestrians, plastic furniture, a huge wall, a vertiginous staircase and a gunshot to the stomach. The audience move with this tumbling, dreamlike narrative, following displays of physical grace and eruptive force. In the best of these, transparent pools of water are lowered from above where female performers patter and dive, the ripples and light creating artful images. It descends astonishingly close to us, and the playfulness turns violent, as bodies cavort and slam, touching us through the Perspex.

A frisson of danger
It is a show designed to enthral and to startle, while routinely arousing the frisson of danger. A few days before my viewing, a little of both qualities had made headlines. The actor Sadie Frost joined the cast for a one-off performance, slipping and rolling in the pools with cast members, while a few days previously, an elaborate piece of the show’s set collapsed during a performance, injuring three audience members and one performer. (The sequence has since been removed from the show.)

“Shatter your inhibitions,” goes the tagline of the show, now in its 10th year. “Don’t shatter your pelvis,” I think as a member of the crew fastens me tightly into a safety harness and says there is nothing to worry about.

Inclusion is both the ethos and the selling point of the work of director Diqui James, the founder of Fuerza Bruta (“brute force”) and co-founder of its very similar predecessor company, De La Guarda. “When I started [in] theatre I wanted to do something that anybody could understand,” he has said. That very accessibility, however, can have debilitating consequences. De La Guarda, which ran for several years off Broadway, gradually morphed from something fresh and anarchic to a more corporate affair, tailoring performances to specific markets, while flogging the soundtrack from the stage. There is more than one definition of a sell-out show.

Fuerza Bruta has a curious business plan too: it travels to different territories in instalments. The version in London, for instance, is a repeat visit with an additional 20 minutes of material, whereas the version that goes to Limerick is the original 60-minute show.

That might sound a little mean, but Liam Lane, a performer with the show, enthuses about the original. “For me it’s more intense,” he says. “There’s more of a narrative.” Lane should know something about intensity: he often plays the Running Man, the most exhausting role in the show, and he has a two-year-old at home with Brooke Miyasaki (they met working on the show and later married). Both of them work as “captains” on the production, a fitting sports analogy for performers who also keep tabs on the rest of the ensemble. “I do feel a little dead until I’m in the show again,” Lane says of the performance’s adrenaline rush. “There’s certainly an addictive nature to it. When you’re up there, you really have no choice.” He leaves to get ready. “Enjoy the bubble,” he calls back.

Oh, yeah. The bubble.

By game arrangement with the company, I get to participate in two sequences during the performance. The first is called Murga Alta, inspired by a traditional Argentinean carnival dance, which is so charged with abandon that anyone can get by, providing they check all inhibitions and dignity at the cloakroom. This, I can do. But, really, anyone can do it, and that’s the point. As the sequence starts, cast members dance their way into the throng with large pizza-box contraptions that explode with confetti when smashed over the heads of audience members. Though it’s a familiar clown trick, it works like an initiation: a baptism by glitter. If the crowd aren’t already dancing, they are now.

The second, which they call Globa, will sadly not be part of the Limerick show. As a ginormous transparent tarpaulin stretches out over the audience, and wind machines gradually pulse to raise it into a huge dome, the bubble finally inflates. Here is where the professional aerialists reach their peak, as the Running Man is hoisted upside down through a chute, and begins swimming, then spinning, in a gyre of air. It’s also where two aerialists descend, from huge porthole-shaped apertures, to bring two audience members flying up into the ether. It’s also why I finally find myself strapped to the body of Mariano Panelo (by majority consensus, an enviable place to be), before being carried up on to the bubble to bounce over the heads of the audience some nine metres below. It’s a giddying sensation, to walk on air, but its charm is more democratic. Whoever they bring up is a proxy for the whole audience, aspiring aerialists, now given a taste of performance: that could be me up there.

You can scoff at the anti-intellectualism of the show’s creator (“No one knows the meaning of the work, because it doesn’t have one,” insists its promotional material), and you could certainly take issue with its politics (the men are suited and determined, valiantly breaking free of humdrum routines; women appear mainly as playful apparitions or soaked, semi-naked sylphs). But much criticism seems to involve a struggle to define the show (“Theatre for people who don’t like theatre,” harrumphed the New York Times ; “must be all the better if you’re on acid or ecstasy”, offered the Stage ). That is unlikely to bother its intended audience. As one cast member beamed at me, in between her two evening performances, “See you at the party.”

Fuerza Bruta is at the Culture Factory, Limerick from March 13 -22 . limerickcityofculture.ie

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