Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: L’Ecume de l’Air, Barbican Pit Theatre

Review: L’Ecume de l’Air, Barbican Pit Theatre

Written for Culture Wars, 30.01.2009

There’s no doubt that Martin Schwietzke can juggle. In L’Ecume de l’Air (literally: The Foam of The Air) handfuls of white balls encircle his body as he weaves a continuum of motion both hypnotic and slumberous. These spiralling trails are sporadically interrupted as balls perch in the folds of his elbows or rest momentarily on his tilted temples. Strangely comforting and bewilderingly beautiful though it is, however, Schwietzke’s juggling somehow just isn’t enough.

Played underneath a translucent white sheet, pinched and pullied to resemble an ethereal big top or far-off mountain, Schwietzke’s actions feel more like practice than performance. While there is a laudable sense of human fallibility about his acceptance of dropped balls, it leaves very little at stake. The dense concentration required offers little room for our own involvement and his semi-improvised mode allows him to avoid mistakes by changing tack.

Opposite Michel Bismut’s solemn double-bass score, Schweitzke seems a man in isolation, whittling away the 10,000 hours supposedly required for mastery of a discipline. So evident is his skill that it becomes transparent and, accordingly, the theatre falls out of L’Ecume de l’Air. Rather, it is demonstration seen from a distance; empty virtuosity more suited to Blue Peter than the Barbican. Nothing really matters – it’s just juggling.

That said, everything changes with different tools. In the second-half, Schwietzke performs a delicate, measured dance with a balloon, a stick and a hoop. Herein is a relationship of opposition so absent in his juggling and, with it, images translate into metaphor and meaning. The angular solidity of Schwietzke’s body against the balloon’s weightless sphere creates a duet of contradiction, a struggle of control in which you can no longer tell which is leading the other. He seems to be juggling with the entire universe on all of our behalves, simultaneously at its centre and at its whim.

Slower, steadier and less spectacular, this act is all the more consuming. Together Schweitzke and his objects form a human-sized logic puzzle of interlocking rings; an expression of equilibrium that captures mankind’s curiosity and fascination with his environment.

In this tender balancing act that seems universally achievable, Schweitzke accomplishes far more than in the exercise of his own unique talents – he places his audience at the heart of his work in his stead, reaching beyond mere spectacle to reflect us both as individuals and as a species.

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