Women at the end of their ropes sounds more like grist for a Pedro Almodovar movie than the premise of a new movement theater festival. But an international group of women converging on the Mlejn culture center in Prague 5 this week are happily taking to the air to launch Fun Fatale, the first Czech theater festival devoted entirely to aerial performances.
Fun Fatale falls under the larger rubric of “new circus,” an evolving performance art that eschews traditional circus trappings like big-top tents and wild animals, focusing instead on skills like acrobatics and juggling to tell a story. Cirque du Soleil is the most popular example of new circus; in Prague, the Letní Letná festival stages a mix of music, traditional theater and new circus acts every summer.
The idea for Fun Fatale was hatched by Mlejn director Dagmar Roubalová and a group of friends who used to attend a now-defunct womenʼs theater festival in Finland every year. “We came up with the crazy idea of doing our own theater festival in Prague, but dedicated to acrobatics,” says Roubalová.
Actually, the idea isnʼt as crazy as it sounds. The Mlejn center, which was torn down and completely rebuilt a few years ago, is one of four facilities in the Czech Republic that offer classes in new circus acrobatics. It has a dedicated training and performance hall eight meters high with a reinforced ceiling that can support the weight of performers on ropes, scarves and trapezes. And after years on the womenʼs theater circuit, Roubalová and her colleagues have a lot of contacts and friends.
One of them, Jana Korb, will be opening the festival on Wednesday (Feb. 1) with the premiere of a new work, Paper Dolls. A German acrobat who gives occasional workshops at Mlejn, Korb took a cue from Margaret Atwoodʼs novel Catʼs Eye to explore her own childhood memories, which she extends into three-dimensional space with some gravity-defying gymnastics and accompanying soundscapes.
Mlejn will reprise one of its own productions on Thursday (Feb. 2) with Easy Living, a piece that demonstrates the adaptability of new circus techniques. Six performers serve up a hybrid of movement and classical music, with American expat soprano Diana Alvia singing Bizet, Rossini, Massenet and more, accompanied by violinist Monika Růžková and harp player Hana Hrachovinová, while acrobats Stéphanie NʼDuhirahe, Jana Klimová and Eliška Brtnická offer graceful physical responses. For this performance, they will be joined by French actress and acrobat Seiline Valée of Décalages Theatre.
The program on Friday night (Feb. 3) opens with Hra, another original work created at Mlejn. The absurdist duet is performed by two instructors at the center, Katka Klusáková and Pavla Rožničková. They will be followed by a mix of other festival performers doing free-form short pieces. ‘Itʼs our most popular piece ... We were supposed to perform it in Egypt, but that was canceled by the revolution.’
Postvaj na Čaj!, which starts an all-day program on Saturday (Feb. 4), is perfect for the weather, a wordless duet by Eliška Brtnická and Jana Klimová about the difficulties of preparing hot tea in a frozen environment. “Itʼs our most popular piece,” says Roubalová. “We debuted it in 2010, and weʼve taken it to Poland, Turkey and Slovakia. We were supposed to perform it in Egypt, but that was canceled by the revolution. After the festival, we will be taking it to France.”
Following that will be We Do Love Little Kittens, a British-Czech satire on the place of women in society that features the daring Francesca Hyde hanging by her hair. “She said it only hurt the first time,” Roubalová confides with a smile. After a break for a panel discussion on womenʼs evolving role in the new circus movement, Mexican choreographer and performer Alaide Ibarra literally gets buried under the weight of nonstop news in her solo piece A Diario. And the day concludes with a demonstration and social for the audience and performers.
The Sunday (Feb. 5) schedule is jammed with three performances. The opener, Tančíček Adušiadáší, is a slapstick piece by Adéla Kratochvílová and Dáša Tráníková that includes juggling and clowning. Foutaise comes to the festival from the Nusle-based Cirqueon company, with Swiss acrobats Morgan Widmer and Stephanie NʼDuhirahe showing what can be done with a lot of skill, imagination and a simple rope. And for the finale, Finnish dancer and acrobat Ilona Jäntti anchors a triptych – Muualla, Double Dutch and an untitled work – that combines electronic music and animated projections with live choreography.
Along with entertaining audiences, Roubalová realizes that the festival has some educating to do this year if it is to become an annual event, as she and her crew hope.
“Outside of Letní Letná and some street theater, new circus is not commonly known in the Czech Republic,” she says. “So itʼs important for us to show our audiences that itʼs not just gymnastics but theater, using a different set of artistic techniques to tell the story.”
With a fine performance space and six classes (three for adults, three for children) that fill up every time theyʼre offered, Mlejn seems like an ideal setting. The all-female orientation of the inaugural festival reflects the overall makeup of the profession, which tends to attract more women than men. “I think itʼs because more women are involved in gymnastics as children, whereas little boys tend to be outside playing football,” she says.
Still, Roubalová is hoping to see plenty of men in the audience this week. “We want them to come,” she says, “and be inspired.”