Returning to Manipulate for the third time, Paper Doll Militia this year bring Loopsend to Edinburgh’s visual theatre festival. An aerial theatre company with roots in circus, original music, puppetry, and storytelling, they consist of performers and Artistic Directors Rain Anya and Sarah Bebe Homes, who are joined by two others (Claire Crook and Joe Garcia) for this production. With no spoken dialogue throughout, Loopsend is a show that truly relies on its visual and musical elements.
The production is broken into two halves, which at points feel as though they could be two entirely separate shows. The first half opens with a starkly bare stage, empty except for a pair of ropes hanging from the rafters. Three performers bring the space alive with chalk that crumbles off their backs, is blown through the air and makes shapes and patterns on the floor. The three aerialists dance in the ropes, easily ascending and descending and creating a relationship between the three that, whilst beautiful, is not always clear. The ropes that hang in the space come alive in the hands of the performers, hypnotically twisting and untwisting in the space even when left alone.
The second half of Loopsend brings a more domestic scene to life, in which a character gets lost in a memory. Two friends reunite in a tumultuous landscape of billowing fabric, and both performers (Sarah and Rain) gracefully play together in the aerial silks. This isn’t a performance for tricks and showmanship, as you might imagine from the circus big top. Rather, it is a process of discovery as the performers experiment and play with the aerial apparatus. That isn’t to say that the performance isn’t packed full of world-class circus – it is. All performers work beautifully with the equipment but Sarah and Rain are notable in their graceful, powerful movements and expressive faces. A doubles routine between the two is beautifully child-like and incredibly impressive.
The two halves of this show don’t always seem to exist within the same world, but that is perhaps the point. Paper Doll Militia have set out to create a Tim Burtonesque narrative piece and the two contrasting halves capture light and dark in a way that Burton would admire. The first half is stark and almost unfriendly, with a narrative that is hard to pin down, whereas the second half is brimming with childlike excitement and exploration which has a narrative that is much clearer.
There are times when the show doesn’t feel quite complete or when there is too much focus on a disjointed aesthetic. The music, for example, is very fitting for the piece, but there are distracting moments between tracks where one oddly fades out as the next one abruptly starts.
These points, however, are only minor. With Loopsend, Paper Doll Militia have created an impressive piece of narrative circus. Whilst the intentions are not always clear, the beautiful aerial work and the playfulness of the performers make for a very enjoyable production.