Afrique en Cirque: Sydney Festival 2023

Jackie McMillan
8th Jan 2023

Afrique en Cirque, created by Yamoussa Bangoura, is a celebration of ecstatic movement. Sitting at the nexus of circus, music and dance, the show’s Sydney Festival opening night was met by an all-of-audience standing ovation last night at Riverside Theatres. As well it should: the small band of acrobats and musicians, led by Bangoura himself on the 21-string West African kora, certainly gave it their all. You don’t get those guns just from plucking strings though. Bangoura has worked his way through some of the finest circus companies in the world, and shows off some of those skills in drumming, singing and acrobatics across the 90-minute show. He’s hard to take your eyes off.

Against the backdrop of a Guinean village circus feels more playful and enmeshed in everyday life. Transitions between art forms are seamless, and you rarely catch anyone preparing for a trick. Despite the show being tightly choreographed, there’s a looseness and joy to the movement that is as infectious as the rhythms beaten out on djembes. Performers showed both bravery and adaptability when, halfway through a balance sequence, a tumbler smashes through a prop necessary for the rest of the trick. Strong circus ethos—the show must go on—sees them find a way to rebuild for a final human pyramid.

The gaze, the pleasure and power of looking, is also examined by this Montreal-based company. In a scene that summons Wild African Boys Afloat, the male acrobats remove shirts and don hardhats for some slow pelvic oscillations. By using the conventions of ladies’ night at an all-male revue, part of the (female) audience is a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’, and the other half is profoundly uncomfortable at this invitation to fetishise the idealised, hypersexual African male body.

Balance is restored when contortionist Mohamed Ben Sylla reminds you to be careful what you wish for, as bodies can also be grotesque. Uncoiling from a fishing net in the image of the water genie Sata-Bo, Sylla takes a serpentine and at times spasmodic approach to contortion that utterly steals the show. While the Wild Boys women are largely silent, the rest of the audience leans into the pleasure of ugly-pretty as Sylla shows you angles and arrangements of the body most people desperately try to avoid.

You can view Afrique en Cirque as a window into the sights and sounds of Guinean village life and the strength and artistry of African people, or you simply count abs. Whatever floats your boat. This exuberant show allows you to pick your own pleasure.