LIMBO offers a new twist on classic circus skills where artists bend over backwards to entertain, finds Mark Fisher
Say what you like about contortionists, but there can’t be many who took up their profession after ditching a high-flying academic career. That’s what happened to Jonathan Nosan. Today, you’ll see him bending over backwards with astonishing suppleness as one of the big-top turns in Limbo, a thrilling circus spectacular taking residence in Edinburgh for the Christmas season after an acclaimed run on London’s South Bank. But back in 1994, he was a dedicated young graduate in geography and Asian studies who had recently embarkedon a Fulbright scholarship in Japan.
He was there to study the “design of sacred space of new religious movements” and looked set to pursue a bookish career sat behind a desk. Settling in for a year living in a wood cabin in the northwest mountains of Kyoto, he had little in his background to suggest he might run away with the circus. But when he went to see Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, which was in Tokyo on a world tour, something clicked. Almost overnight, he committed himself to a life of acrobatics. Out went the textbooks and in came the painstaking task of transforming his body into the rubber-limbed phenomenon we see today.
“I was on a PhD track,” he says, sitting in London’s evening air after another sell-out performance. “I had spent 15, 20 years strengthening the brain muscle and I felt it was time to do the other muscles.”
He embraced circus skills with the same obsessiveness he had applied to his academic studies. In Kyoto, he learned butoh, the high-precision form of Japanese dance; in London, he trained with physical theatre guru Philippe Gaulier; and in San Francisco, he developed his contortion skills. Whether he was exercising his mind or his body, he recognised no middle ground. “They’re both extreme things,” he says. “The whole nature of where I come from is delving into things extremely. I’ve always been attracted to the more esoteric realms either of academia or circus. Contortion is on the brink, it’s pushing things to the extremes.”
To get a sense of how unusual this is, you need look no further than his Limbo co-star Danik Abishev. This master of hand balancing has been performing in circus since the age of four, initially in his native Russia and more recently in Australia where his family emigrated. For Nosan to wait until he was 24 before starting to develop his physical skills meant he had decades of catching up to do. Yet, despite having no double-jointedness or even any special aptitude that would set him apart from the rest of us, he has become one of the best in the business. His skills have landed him stuntman roles in the films Big Fish, The Bounty Hunter and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
“I didn’t have a natural flexibility,” says Nosan, who was a keen juggler and magician as a teenager. “There’s nothing natural about what I do. It’s all trained – and trained well. When Cirque du Soleil was in Tokyo, it was a brand new thing at the time. I went and saw it, especially the contortionists and, even though it resonated in my body, it seemed slightly impossible. I met one of the performers afterwards who told me about Philippe Gaulier’s physical theatre school in London and a month later I got on a plane and spent a year with him.”
Did he discover any native talent? “Not really. I really sucked! It’s really hard. It took me three years to get a straight handstand which is the essence of Chinese contortion. To properly do a cartwheel, it took me a year. There wasn’t a lot of natural feeling, but the more I did it, the more I wanted it. I have a laser-like focus.”
Performed in a Spiegeltent with the audience nestling in at close quarters to the raised central stage, Limbo is at once steeped in end-of-the-pier tradition and held together by a very 21st century aesthetic. Like all great circuses, it has fire eating, backflips and breathtaking trapeze (sometimes right over the audience’s heads), but it also has a tremendous live score that manages to embrace everything from oompah to hip hop. There’s magic, sword-swallowing and tap dancing, as well as a ringmaster who holds everything together without saying a word.
“This show is very different from 99 per cent of circus shows,” says Nosan. “My piece, for example, is not typical circus. It isn’t a Spandex leotard ta-da act. None of them are. There are subtexts and sub-narratives and things that are happening beyond the trick. The stillness that’s between the tricks sucks people in and keeps them there. It has a more theatrical element than ta-da circus.”
It is the oddball mix of talents that appeals to director Scott Maidment, a former Shakespearean actor who became transfixed by the energy of circus. He didn’t want just any old acrobats, but multitalented performers with extra strings to their bows. “I could name a 100 people who can do a Chinese pole act,” he says. “But in this show, I can say, ‘Yes, you can do the Chinese pole, but the reason you’re in Limbo is you can also beatbox, play the guitar, sing, dance and be a clown.’ I spent a lot of time talking to the cast about what else they can do. I found out the aerialist could play the piano accordion and she was a singer and dancer. That’s more attractive to me because what I like when I see a show is to go, ‘Those people can do anything!’”
The same principle applies to the three musicians who, between them and the other performers, get through over 50 instruments in each show. “The first ingredient I wanted was some great live music,” says Maidment. “Then I wanted something that would be close to the audience and would be around them and not just on the stage. I wanted some great people to look at and some great skills. I had all these ingredients and all I needed to do was mix it up and cook it.”
He sees the appeal of circus as being akin to that of sport. As a species, we love to see a performer, whether athlete or acrobat, pushing the human body seemingly beyond what’s physically possible. “One of the beauties of circus is that they’ve got two arms and two legs just like I have – we’re essentially just the same, except they’re doing extraordinary things. They don’t need gravity. That’s the buzz: everyone thinks, ‘They’re just like me but I can’t imagine standing on that pole, handstanding or doing a backflip.’ That’s what creates the electricity in the air.”
Holding Limbo together is a theme about the terrain between heaven and hell, but Maidment is happy for the audience to make whatever sense they want out of it. He and the performers have a way of talking about the show in terms of the journey each of them goes on, a broad narrative that gives Limbo shape and atmosphere, but it’s not important for anyone else to know about it. “If you want to, you can read lots of things into this,” he says. “Or can you just sit there and enjoy the amazing bodies, the great skills and the great music.”
• Limbo is at St Andrew’s Square, Edinburgh, 22 November-5 January, as part of Edinburgh’s Christmas. www.edinburghschristmas.com