Edinburgh Festival Fringe dance, physical theatre & circus reviews: Circus Abyssinia | Tomato | Runners

Sexy tomatoes, Ethiopian athletes and the granddaddy of all running machines feature in Kelly Apter’s round-up of three fine circus and physical theatre shows on the Fringe

Circus Abyssinia: Tulu ****

Underbelly’s Circus Hub on the Meadows, until 27 August

Although, in theory, this new show from Circus Abyssinia is inspired by long-distance runner Derartu Tulu, the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, little reference is made to her. An opening routine of proud flag waving, and a female performer running around the stage as Tulu sets the scene, but from there the focus is purely on circus.

Circus Abyssinia PIC: Rod PennCircus Abyssinia PIC: Rod Penn
Circus Abyssinia PIC: Rod Penn

Which is one of the strengths of this likeable company founded by Ethiopian brothers Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam. Their humble beginnings, honing their craft as jugglers and trying to find their way in the world, feeds into the spirit of the shows they produce. As such, talent and hard work is at the heart of Tulu, with fewer bells and whistles than similar circus shows.

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Backed by a lively African soundtrack, the performers work their way through a series of impressive routines. A contortionist bends her body into shapes that almost make your eyes water, and a female balancing duo exhibit incredible strength and poise. When two cast members appear in roller skates, things really start to pick up pace. Spinning in a tight circle, they gather momentum as one of them is lifted and lowered, spun by the neck and feet, and performs splits in the air – all with those heavy boots on the end of her legs.

A male hand balancer and aerial artist brings power, gravitas and beauty to the stage with two contrasting routines. Which forms a nice counterbalance to the smiling exuberance of four young acrobats who dive through hoops with speed and dexterity – then ramp it up further by repeating their actions once the hoops have been set ablaze. And, of course, brothers Bibi and Bichu deliver their trademark juggling, only this time, their clubs are on fire too. Much like this show.

Taiwan Season: Tomato ***

Summerhall, until 28 August

Nobody could predict the trajectory that this playful new show from Taiwan takes. What starts as a lesson in good greengrocery shopping ends in a messy, carefree demonstration of sexual freedom.

A clear tank filled with tomatoes – some real, some fake – sits on the stage, alongside a TV set and three performers. Dressed in a silken gown, her back to the audience, one dancer sways to Billie Holiday. Another, covered head to foot in protective overalls, wields a tiny camera relaying live footage onto the television. The third, seemingly our host, reaches into the tank and plucks out a juicy tomato as we listen to top tips on how to select a ripe one.

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So far so straightforward, but parallels to how women are perceived in society start to bubble up. As do ideas of gender conformity and sexual identity. We quickly get a sense that in this instance, a tomato is not just a tomato.

By the end, all inhibitions have been set free, a sense of almost frenzied joy emerges, and the fruits/vegetables follow suit. Tomato may be a stage manager’s worst nightmare, but young choreographer Chou Kuan-Jou has created a wild, unfettered show it’s hard not to have a soft spot for.

Runners ****

Zoo Southside, until 28 August

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After watching Cirk La Putyka’s Runners, you’ll never look at a gym treadmill in the same way again. The Czech company packed a lot into its suitcase before heading to this year’s Fringe, including the granddaddy of all running machines. The enormous centrepiece moves continuously throughout the show, at varying speeds to match the performers’ moods. Sometimes it’s slow and contemplative, other times it’s dizzyingly fast.

This could easily have been a full-on flips and tricks show, but Cirk La Putyka decided to take a different route. Instead, they walk up to the mic to impart short anecdotes from their lives and facts about modern life. The latter usually involves a quest for speed and often closes with the question “But why?”. Why indeed?

At its heart, this show asks why so many of us rush through life at breakneck speed, but it also acknowledges the thrill of fast movement. Backed by two live musicians, who perform an intoxicating original score on keyboard, electric violin and voice, four circus artists put the treadmill to good use. Whether it’s a beautifully lit dance sequence, robust running or something more comical and light-hearted, the performers are masters of the machine.

During one particularly thrilling scene, we hear the numbers one to nine shouted out loud, as the treadmill slowly picks up pace. On top of it, everyday activities are carried out – teeth brushing, taking a swig of water, writing in a notepad – until they’re happening so fast, it’s almost too perilous to watch.

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If their ability to stand, dance, run and walk on the treadmill is impressive, then the arrival of a Cyr wheel and bicycle only up the ante. But it’s perhaps the final scene, when they just run, pure and simple but with such resilience and determination, that truly grabs our hearts.

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