“The skies are asleep and somewhere behind a bush, a woman sculpted from raw flesh is waiting for you. Will you feed her ice?” – Jindřich Štýrský
In Emilie, Cirkus Mlejn entices its audience into an intimate and gloomy world face to face with an image of a man convulsed by his own dreams, his own perverse desires and especially, a woman who is seducing him while changing her form as necessary until he falls completely under her control. Just asthe eponymous book by Jindřich Štýrský, Emilie by Cirkus Mlejn provokes the imagination of its audience. The performance doesn’t present a coherent story. Instead, it paints poetry, follows associations and leaves the perceivers to interpret the conjured images their own way, ponder over them or let themselves be pulled inside and leave the everyday reality behind.However, even the ordinary life has a part in the show, though not a completely positive one. The central character portrayed by Ondřej Jiráček is fully immersed in his inner world of reappearing visions or dreams of Emilia, which liberate him from the reality which takes the from of repeating sequences in which the protagonist performs mechanical movements controlled by loud music resembling the sounds of a factory with rumbling machines and ticking clocks. The uneasy atmosphere is augmented by a rectangle of yellow light on the floor of the stage which carves out the living space of the protagonist from complete darkness. The themes of dreams and escape from the reality to imagination along with the music allude to the second source of inspiration for this performance, the Dancer in the Dark film by Lars von Trier from 2000, in which the protagonist, unable to defend herself from her surroundings, lapses into dreams during her physically strenuous shifts in a factory. The daydreaming provides her consolation but also controls her and disrupts her idea of the reality.The opening scene foreshadows the rest of the performance and alludes to Štýrský’s book as a source of inspiration. A confused man (Ondřej Jiráček) enters the darkened stage carrying a backpack on his back and a small withered flower in his hand. A female figure (Alžběta Kostrhunová) hesitantly joins him on stage. Both are walking backwards. They bump into each other, she draws her face close to his as if she wanted to kiss him but suddenly, she evades him, takes the flower from his hand and quickly eats it. He silently leaves and she spits out the flower with disgust. Everything that seemed beautiful is turned into the opposite and this transformation becomes the main theme of the performance.The three actors, which includes Alžběta Kostrhunová who performs live music and sound effects on stage, need nothing more than a virtually empty stage furnished only with two acrobatic silks and a metal locker with pictures of nude women plastered inside. The stage design is predominantly created with light which also contributes to the gloomy atmosphere. Props are scarce, but costumes abound. Eliška Brtnická and Jana Klimová impersonate all the protagonist’s fantasies and keep parading one costume after another. They first appear in body-color body suits which makes them seem naked and free of any symbols. After making his entrance with a backpack, the male protagonist changes into lose white trousers and a white jacket. He puts on a white hood and a white respirator and starts performing mechanical movements. However, the overall impression of sterility is disrupted by a red dot on the respirator which somewhat resembles a clown’s nose.
The performers with both acting and acrobatic skills make lighting-speed transitions between sequences of very different moods, transform their characters and mix acting with aerial acrobatics on the silks. In an early highlight sequence, Eliška Brtnická wears a black dress with feathers reminiscent of a cabaret performer while dancing tango suspended upside down on a silk with a man who is standing on the floor. The man soon starts soaring off the ground tightly gripping his partner, all this to a romantic, almost nostalgic French song.
Dream-like sequences and interventions of the uneasy reality are interspersed with comedy numbers by Ondřej Jiráček. In these lighter moments, Jiráček employs masterful comic acting based on simple gestures and childishly unabashed facial expressions and seems much more at home than in the more serious fantasy sequences in which the emotions of his character towards the apparitions of women aren’t always clear. There are scenes in which the man gradually unpacks his food carefully wrapped in aluminum foil and fantasy, associations and transformations again come into play to show that things are never what they seem to be or what we take them for. In the performer’s hands, radishes come to life and start arguing accompanied by comical sounds until two of them they get eaten by a fearsome monster. The remaining radishes then turn into juggling balls while their green parts become a wedding bouquet which the man, now in his clown mode, ceremoniously chucks into the audience.
However, there are gradually less and less similarly humorous moments as the man lapses into his dream world which begins to turn against him: a dream is devouring itself. The women no longer wear dresses but start appearing in beige body suits as if they were naked. The two women don’t pay any attention to the man anymore and start seducing each other in an impressive aerial acrobatic number in which their bodies intertwine in unthinkable configurations and shapes creating a tangle of human bodies.
More and more women start appearing, not performers but plastic dummies whose torsos, legs and arms start piling up. Deformations and the play with the audience’s perception escalate. Suddenly, there is a female figure composed of a dummy from the waist down, the rest being a live actress. The figure falls apart and another one appears from the dark. The number of plastic bodies on stage is growing and so is the urgency of the question “who is this Emilia?” Emilia can be a metaphor of a woman in general or it can be a product of a man’s imaginations. Emilia is also an apparition which takes varying shapes in the man’s fantasies: She can be a temperamental woman with unbelievably long hair which she uses to gently pet the sleeping man, a submissive woman controlled by the man or, finally, the one who takes control over him. Against the man’s will, the woman wraps his head in black acrobatic silk. He attempts a clumsy escape and desperately tries to hide in his locker but can barely fit inside. However, the women always keep their ice cool with almost inert faces as if even their living versions retained the empty expressions of the plastic dummies.
Emilia is a movement performance which doesn’t use acrobatics for their own sake. On the contrary, it exhibits meticulous thoughtfulness. Although the Štýrský’s text which inspires the spectacle might tempt towards vulgarity, the authors of Emilia steer clear of this territory and portray the male imagination, nudity, daydreaming and reality in an original way using many grotesque elements to mix serious insight with a light perspective. The accompanying music matches the diversity and volatility of the action cementing Emilia as a performance which is fascinating, poetic, fearsome and funny at the same time.
Cirkus Mlejn: Emilia – performers: Jana Klimová, Eliška Brtnická and guest performers Ondřej Jiráček (Husa na Provázku theater) alternated by Petr Štěpánek (Long Vehicle Circus); Choreography: Jana Klimová, Eliška Brtnická and Salvi Salvatore (Décalages theater); Supervision: Vít Neznal; Music: Alžběta Kostrhunová; Lighting Design: Vlado Veleta; Costume Design: Petra Vlachynská; Production: Dagmar Roubalová
photo: KD Mlejn
added: Nov. 6, 2012
The author is a student of Drama Theory at the School of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague. This article was written for Cirqueon’s “Writing On Contemporary Circus” educational project for students of journalism.