Gandini Juggling review: opening show of the London Mime Festival blows away preconceptions

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Like so many of the capital’s arts events, the London International Mime Festival moved online during the pandemic. In 2022 it is very much back in its physical form. And few shows will feel quite as physical as this sold out world premiere of Life – A Love Letter To Merce Cunningham, by multi-disciplinary group Gandini Juggling.

The acclaimed UK-based troupe has often mixed contemporary circus skills with other art forms, and here the emphasis is very much on dance, with the show paying homage to pioneering choreographer Cunningham. Aficionados will recognise references to his work, others will simply be mesmerised by the skill and coordination.

Company co-founder Sean Gandini started with a brisk primer, explaining the different ways balls can be tossed, while ethereal co-founder/director Kati Ylä-Hokkala demonstrated the moves. He also joked about “the drop”. To some it might seem like a mistake, but for Gandini the floored ball offers a philosophical “moment of reflection”. Though with performers as synchronised as this there were few moments of reflection last night.

Instead the group of nine put on a peerless display of bodies in pure harmony, backed by Caroline Shaw’s minimalist soundtrack which nodded to Cunningham collaborator John Cage. At times it resembled dance with added juggling, at times juggling with added dance as they carved out shapes in the air with their limbs, while their manipulation seemed to defy gravity. The England cricket team could do with catchers of this calibre in Australia.

The movement was both graceful and geometric with everyone operating in unison. Some have a circus background – Gandini was originally a street performer – others are trained dancers. Jennifer Goggans was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Despite this being a mime festival, speaking is allowed. Goggans introduced one piece with some playful lighting cues but mostly they are silent, letting their motions do the talking.

Elsewhere the juggling took second place to simple physical theatre as the team passed luminous Indian clubs to each other, like batons in a slo-mo balletic relay race, or sent colourful rings arcing in the air, conjuring up an image of the Olympic logo splitting apart. The finale, with the vividly coloured clubs flying around the room felt more like a rave than a circus.

The mime festival continues in various venues with a mix of physical theatre, dance, puppetry and family-friendly shows. Do not be put off by childhood memories of silent white-faced clowns trapped in imaginary boxes or walking through invisible storms. Mime here is an extremely broad church. Throw your preconceptions out of the window and catch a show.

Sadler’s Wells, Lilian Baylis Studio, to Saturday. The London International Mime Festival runs until February 6, mimelondon.com

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