I am not accustomed to perching on a stranger’s shoulders while someone to whom I haven’t been properly introduced clings to my legs, as layers of yet more people I barely know teeter beneath me. This is all most irregular for a Sunday afternoon.
Or rather, it is for me. It seems to be entirely normal for the members of the Cirque Mandingue, a Guinean circus troupe that is bringing its west African meld of acrobatics, contortion and dance to London’s Roundhouse later this month. I have come to Châteauroux, a small town near Paris, to meet the circus performers on the French leg of their tour. And, just to make sure I really get the idea of what they do, they have decided to teach me how to build – well, become part of – a human pyramid.
But first I watch their show so I can see what I’m letting myself in for. It’s freezing cold and grey outside, but inside the Equinoxe theatre Cirque Mandingue is transporting the audience to the bustling streets of Conakry, the capital of Guinea. Bantering performers – gymnasts, contortionists and acrobats – crowd the stage, dancing and leaping to the insistent sound of live djembe drumming.
Scenes move between a blur of frenetic handstands and incredibly fast leaps, with performers flipping themselves on to the shoulders of fellow acrobats, to slower, intricately choreographed contortion routines. At one point the contortionists use what looks like a maypole to show off some eye-watering moves as they twist up and down it – is the human body really supposed to do that?
At least I haven’t been roped in to that part of their act. But as the show draws to a close, I know it’s my turn now. I head backstage, where Yamoussa Camara, aka Junior, the leader of the troupe, approaches me enthusiastically: “You’ve done this before, right?”
“Er, no, I haven’t.”
This prompts some conferring among the team. I’m left standing to one side taking off my shoes, while they decide what’s possible – and safe – to do with a novice like me. I’m told to clamber on to the shoulders of gymnast François Leno. I have no idea what’s about to happen, so have little choice but to go with it and hope I don’t break my neck. I manage to scramble up, but then I’m instructed to hold my legs at a right angle and point my toes upwards. This is not as easy as it sounds – and that’s before Fatou Sylla, who is the troupe’s sole female member, uses my toes as a hook on which to anchor herself at the front of our formation.
My thighs are aching and I’m ready to buckle, but more performers are attaching themselves to the chap below me. “Hurry up!” I yell over to the photographer, “I can’t hold it much longer.”
The group takes pity on me and we break for a quick rest. They reassure me that what we’re doing is quite safe, but I’m not entirely convinced. On the shoulders once again, legs up, people dangling, I have to use every single muscle in my legs and torso to maintain my balance.
I also feel incredibly puny next to the real acrobats, who are not shy about demonstrating either their physiques or their immense strength. Their daily warm-up alone takes at least two hours, which they follow with four hours of practice – acrobatics, contortion, hand-balancing and traditional dancing. This exercise with me is trivial to them.
Their training takes years, and most of them started young. As I concentrate just on staying more or less upright, I realise too that the kind of acrobatics I have watched on stage depends totally on a mix of confidence and trust. To be able to flip so precisely that you land on someone’s shoulders as easily as a bird alights on a bough requires fearlessness, true, but you also have to know that your partner won’t let you down.
Cirque Mandingue, a collective, was formed in Conakry in 2009. It is both a circus school and a touring company; money earned by the current international tour will help fund the school in Guinea, which is training 30 young performers. Junior, leader of the acrobatics group, is also the school’s director.
Regis Truchy is a French clown who performs in and choreographs part of the show, and his narrative humorously highlights artistic differences between western and African cultures, particularly in music. Some scenes see Truchy’s cheesy western pop pitched against Guinean hip hop. Truchy, who is 38 and previously worked in physical performance for two decades, including four years as a ballet dancer and two as a figure skater, says Cirque Mandingue has given him a new lease of life.
For Truchy, the stand-out element of the show is the way that it mixes contortion with dance. Contortion is an ancient practice found across the world, from China to eastern Europe, and the technique tends to remain very traditional. “These guys,” says Truchy, “mix it up a bit.”
In the current show, one of the guys mixing it up is Naby Youla, 25, whose feats of contortion make one fear for his spine. He started learning acrobatics when he was 10 and, as well as contortion, he dances and plays the djembe.
Aboubacar Camara, 26, also started aged 10, at first learning from friends on the beaches of Conakry. At 15 his hard work paid off when he started working with Junior, who was then a member of Circus Baobab, another troupe in the city. Later, Camara taught his friend N’Famoussa Soumah, and helped him join the recently established Cirque Mandingue. Soumah, 20, says touring can be hard on artists’ families, but “It is a chance for me to have a job and make some money for them.”
With my attempt to be one of the gang now concluded, the group winds down for dinner. The show’s director, Christian Lucas, had warned me that even when the troupe relaxes, the energy is always there. He wasn’t joking – I find myself in the middle of a full-on rap show, Guinean-style; the table shaking as everyone joins in a fast and furious battle of rhythm and rhyming. It’s rather like a verbal version of their passionate physical skills.
Lucas tells me about a festival where the circus troupe was joined by some French performers who asked to warm up with Junior and his group. Barely an hour into the usual two-hour warm-up the French artists had to stop. “They were absolutely exhausted,” recalls Lucas. “But these guys just kept going and going.” Somehow, I’m not surprised.
Cirque Mandingue opens CircusFest 2012 at the Roundhouse, London, March 28-April 7 (festival runs until April 29), www.roundhouse.org.uk/circusfest