Bit of a misleading title this one. Despite the morbid fascination with death, Dark Circus is more a charming work of whimsy than horror. It’s simply too beautiful to be scary.
Stereoptik (aka Romain Bermond and Jean-Baptiste Maillet) are a pair of musicians and visual artists who combine their own musical scores with shadow puppetry, animation, painting, drawing and just about anything they see fit. For Dark Circus one of them sits on one side of the stage surrounded by musical instruments while the other stands on the other side with all the visual aids. In-between them is a large screen which shows the illustrative art being created live through carefully placed cameras.
Based on a story by French author Pef, Dark Circus tells of a mysterious circus that has the disturbing tendency to kill off its performers mid-act. Thus we have a lion-tamer who gets eaten by his untameable lion, a trapeze artist that falls off her trapeze etc. The means of death are too obvious to make the story gripping so its left to the visuals to win the audience over.
Fortunately those visuals are fantastic. Before your very eyes sand is tapped at by a small piece of card and a block of flats appears, so lifelike it could be a photograph. Moments later fingers start dabbing at the picture and an abstract image of dots becomes the audience in a big top. Charcoal drawings depict one thing before being rubbed gently and transforming into something else. A knife-throwing scene takes place in a water-tank, its two protagonists arriving on a canoe on a gorgeous lake. Best of all was the magic that followed a paintbrush placing water on a white background: you could see nothing but the occasional splash of liquid but then one tiny drop of black paint and suddenly the detailed face of a man wearing a hat was staring out at you. It really was incredible.
The variety of methods and artistic styles Stereoptik employed was astonishing (using a guitar to portray a Mexican lion-tamer was particularly ingenious) and their practical and creative ability was exceptional. Bermond and Maillet are two seriously talented guys.
Dark Circus runs at The Pit at London’s Barbican centre until 30 January 2016. Tickets can be found on the Barbican website.