Blame Game has been long in the making. After almost four years of work, and after 18 months of lockdowns and venue closures when activity moved online, the piece started to click together in a residency at the French national circus centre La Verrerie in Alès this month. ‘It all kind of arrived at this sweet spot,’ says Matt Szczerek, the founder of Kundle Cru along with Chinese pole artist Alessio Motta. ‘Sometimes getting a break from the material is good in order to see it from a different perspective…’
Originally imagined as a response to Brexit and its societal impacts, Blame Game has slowly spun out to a wider view that takes in all the ways blame arises in groups, and seems to stalk behind social upheavals and movements. Playing out in a kind of office environment, the performance takes a light touch in exploring alienation, rivalry and blame, before landing at the flip side of group dynamics: the healing power of assembly, and the joy and lightness of connection and coordination.
As a company, Kundle Cru had its genesis in Union Black, a Creative Europe supported collaboration led by Far From The Norm that centred on the factions and conflicts of politics and football as it experimented with combining hip hop and circus. Alessio and Matt were core performers in the show, and found enough depth in the meeting of styles that they decided to keep working together after the project – pushing further into research on how their respective disciplines of circus and dance could be ‘merged together to create a new fusion’.
Bringing in Manu Debuck as director – another Union Black alumni, who worked as circus director on that piece – they also expanded the core cast, adding Liza van Brakel, Louiseanne Wong, Angelique Ross, Jack Bain, and Timothy Waliggo Kakeeto, rounding the number of people on stage out to seven and forming a UK and European cast. Between them they had backgrounds in hip hop and house dance, juggling, Chinese pole, Parkour and Krumping.
The challenge, Matt emphasises, was to make sure the different disciplines (and their artists) didn’t separate out on stage, visibly and obviously, like oil and water, but were instead truly combined into a shared language. ‘We had to figure out how to highlight people’s abilities but also kind of disguise their different backgrounds,’ says Matt. ‘In the first showings of the piece there was a lot of clever figuring out how to not expose ourselves right from the start.’
The result is a performance that features no extended solos, and that treats each and every scene as an ensemble moment. The Chinese pole keeps its circus vocabulary but also becomes a rotated dance floor and staging ground. In the juggling sequences, the theme of blame provides a useful cover (with those who drop sent to the corner and duly ostracised) but the patterns also spin out into the choreography, as the rise and fall of the white balls keeps the beat, or pulls the dancers through their movement.
The challenge of working out how a group of disparate performers can be together on stage resonates with the larger themes of the show, but also takes some extra electricity from the last year and a half of separation.
With no way to work together in the same space, the pandemic threw Blame Game off the rails at the same time as it took away a sense of direction and purpose. ‘You want to stay active, you want keep doing things, but you don’t see the bigger purpose in a way,’ says Matt. ‘Like, you don’t really know what you working are for. You’re just trusting that the whole pandemic situation is going to end at some point.’
To preserve some momentum, Crying Out Loud organised a series of online residencies through 2020 that would work around the edges of the piece – on the things it was possible to do at home and while physically apart. First up was a bracing session with cabaret / circus / drag / live artist Scottee, who, among other exercises, asked each member of the company to write a couple of pages on ‘what fucks you off’. (‘Scottee has this really nice balance of intelligent conversation mixed with a bit of vulgarity,’ says Matt. ‘The way he talks just kind of wakes you up.’) The residency sparked conversations on where anger sits in identity and its role as a catalyst for social causes – where it’s needed, and when it’s not.
A second residency with Ben Duke focused partly on taking the characters of Blame Game and imagining new stories and arcs for them, as well as looking at setting chorographic images that could stage moments of separation and unity. In a similar vein, a final residency with the movement director Aline David – who’d already been part of Blame Game’s creative process as an outside eye – explored mob mentality, and looked at how compositions of bodies in space could create different levels and hierarchies in the piece.
After turning it over in their minds, Alès was the opportunity for Kundle Cru to finally get in the same space and pack everything down into the show itself. Some twelve major scenes were winnowed down to six, and the various texts that the company had developed slowly settled into the movement and overall texture of the piece – in turn making it lighter and subtler. ‘All of a sudden we didn’t need a text – we could scrap it and the performance still said the same thing,’ says Matt. ‘It was only really in Alès that it struck me we’d succeeded in making a very strongly political show. I think by that time it was in the body of the group – this thing started just naturally coming out.’
The performance premieres at Bristol Circus City this weekend. After that, La Verrerie want the company back and are organising a small tour with other venues in the region. Looking further out, there’s more road to run. ‘I feel like we’ve been scratching the surface of what this new methodology is, what this language is,’ says Matt. ‘It’s starting to feel solid to the point that I think we’re ready to make another show right after this one.’
Produced by Crying Out Loud in association with Rua Red & Belfast International Arts Festival, Ireland. With support from Arts Council Ireland; La Verrerie d’Alès Pole National Cirque Occitanie, France; 101 Arts Creation Space, UK; CircusStad Holland; Cheptel Aleïkoum, France; Het Klooster, Holland; Karlsruhe Atoll Festival Germany; Redbridge Drama Centre, UK, Subtopia, Sweden; Le Plus Petit Cirque du Monde, France and South Dublin Council.