There is so much skill in Tabac Rouge, one of Sydney Festival’s most-hyped shows in the 2015 lineup. Its technical skill is impressive – from dancers and movers who do not stop, who are agile and movement-efficient and artful, to a living and breathing set that sighs and moves and comes apart at the seams by the end.
It’s just not as compelling as you would think.
James Thiérrée, a French performer and choreographer who is famous for his blend of dance, acrobatics, mime, circus and music, is behind the work, which he presents with his troupe, Compagnie du Hanneton.
Thiérrée in Tabac Rouge is leading a story that is aimless and purposeful both, which is either an intriguing proposition or a frustrating lack of narrative cohesion, depending on how linear you’re feeling when you watch it (tip: embrace non-linear, you’ll probably end up enjoying it more).
The character is a one-time ruler that can’t escape his own downfall. The performers bend, fall, snap to and from the ground like lurches of gravity; like them, there’s nothing gentle about this journey of Thiérrée’s central character, no moments of stillness of grace. It’s all layered sound and discordance and coordination.
Taking vague inspiration from opium hallucinations and feeling both regal and annoying, this production isn’t easy, and may well rub its audience the wrong way. My section of the stalls was disrupted and disruptive; there was a constant murmur of conversation, and the couple beside me was talking about each moment, trying to nut out the plot beneath the movement, and apparently forgetting to be quiet while watching a wordless show. People were restless, bored.
And yet everyone on that stage is so talented, their movements breathtaking moments of control and abandon: flips, jumps, long lines cut short with great discipline to create that look of something disrupted and anarchic.
The set (by Thiérrée again) is beautiful and almost overwhelming in its greys and metal and scope, old-fashioned in its sensibility, trappings of steam and rust, but incredibly modern in its deconstructionist, adaptable form, creating a sort of old-world stage for ideas that feel unflinchingly immediate: screaming with bodies and hearts (and occasionally voices) against solid establishment for something to break.
The lighting (Bastien Courthieu) is not entirely incidental but it does feel that way; it’s clever and interacts beautifully with the set’s dominating patchwork of mirrors, but it’s also dark and hazy. While it doesn’t obscure your vision, it does make it harder to engage: you have to work a little harder to commit yourself to whichever string of narratives you have found in the piece.
It’s one thing to look at a stage and be impressed by the precision and strength and grace of the performers, to appreciate the technical headache that must be had to create a constantly moving setpiece and the way it ends up (I won’t spoil it), to coordinate perfectly the light and sound with this, but it’s quite another to feel moved by it, and I was unmoved.
This high-concept circus, this choreographic explosion of dance-theate, is a feat of scattered skill. But it verges on the line of boring, and crosses that line over and back again so many times that it’s easy for a brain to turn off, for a viewer to become passive.