Cartwheels are more likely to evoke playground fun than serious artistry, but in the centuries-old tradition of Moroccan acrobats, this simplest of moves is akin to a ritual. Halfway through Aurélien Bory’s Azimut, seven men from the Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger walk to the side of the stage and start slowly turning cartwheels, one by one. Arching back mid-jump, knees and elbows slightly bent, they land with feline grace; as they pick up the pace, their limbs blur, drawing immaculate circles in the air.
It’s a mesmerising image that brings to mind other Sufi performers, Turkey’s whirling dervishes, but Azimut only hints at the troupe’s potential. The Groupe Acrobatique was co-founded by Bory and director Sanae El Kamouni a decade ago as a contemporary outlet for acrobats who trained on a Tangier beach. Bory directed their first production, Taoub, and the company’s efforts to combine traditional virtuosity and modernity quickly drew the attention of programmers.
Azimut, new last autumn and presented this month at the Théâtre du Rond-Point, is in some ways a more mature creation. Acrobatic stunts have given way to a subdued atmosphere. Bory draws on the religious dimension of Moroccan acrobatics to explore, we’re told, the boundary between earth and sky, and does so with his customary visual invention. With just a black backdrop and a metal grid initially hidden behind it, he plays with gravity and perspective to dazzling effect, helped by Arno Veyrat’s dusky lighting. Acrobats curl up and nest in fabric folds mid-air, or walk upside down on the ceiling; elsewhere, as they climb on to each other to form a human pyramid (another Moroccan tradition) and suddenly vanish as if through traps, you wonder if you’re actually watching them from above.
Modest narratives emerge, too: a pregnant woman is led onstage by a man, and later the entire group crawls between her legs, emerging like newborns. Two musicians who drift in and out contribute plaintive, haiku-like songs in Arabic and Berber.
As Azimut unfolds, however, Bory tips the scales against movement. He has worked extensively at the crossroads of circus, dance and theatre, but is rightly credited here as director and stage designer rather than dance-maker. Aside from the cartwheel sequence, the tableaux are mostly static: what Azimut lacks is a choreographer who can tap further into the acrobats’ nimble physicality. As they navigate Bory’s optical illusions, their weightlessness belies their apparent ordinariness; they deserve more of a challenge.