To the uninitiated, argentinean physical theatre troupe De La Guarda continues to takes theatre to new heights. Their 70-minute production Villa Villa, which combines theatre, dance party, rock concert, and street festival into an aerial spectacular, recently set up shop Down Under.
Nearly a decade after their inception, the performance is centered on a group of supple aerialists who swing around and through the space with attitude. They portray in the air the different elements and emotions that everyone goes through in life.
This is the group's first visit to Australia, but Villa Villa has been around for years. It premiered in Buenos Aires in 1995 and has toured London, Amsterdam, Seoul, Las Vegas, Berlin, Mexico City, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo. In New York, the show will soon be ending its long run. In London, the shows sold out for four years.
The venue in Sydney was the recently opened Big Top at the Luna Park funfair, situated on the harbor's edge beneath the shadow of the famous Harbor Bridge.
Upon seeing the show, the first thought that comes to mind is one of safety. Local promoters Jacobsen Entertainment-Jack Utsick Presents are quoted as saying that De La Guarda's safety precautions are “immense.” They also admit that the issue of public liability was one of the first areas discussed with the producers of the show in New York. While all promoters must carry an A$20 million public liability, after a risk analysis it was deemed that there was no need for an increase in that.
Rest assured, officers of the local Work Cover agency are regular visitors to the site.
However as one reviewer said “there are less extensive advisories for war-torn countries than for De La Guarda.” A list pinned to the wall in the foyer warns of many dangers: use of strobe lighting, foggy and wet conditions, the need to stand throughout, and the possibility of injury. You could add to that claustrophobia and fear of the dark. Of course the scariest warning is that of audience participation!
You enter the venue through black drapes that have transformed the space into a black box with a paper ceiling. The beginning of the show is eerie, as alien creatures appear to scuttle across an opaque ceiling, however the show quickly explodes into a rumbustious physical spectacle, with suspended actors flying through the air, running up walls, and dancing on trampolines. De La Guarda certainly lives up to its billing as “theatre that falls from the sky.”
To transform the Big Top into a suitable venue for De La Guarda, Edwin Shirley Staging constructed an elaborate scaffold frame onto which sets are built. On top of that a truss system is installed to support the aerial rigging and lighting. Suspended from the trussing is a plethora of ropes and pulleys.
The performers wear specially designed harnesses that allow them to dance and run in the air. Whereas most harnesses have only the one rigging-mounting point, the De La Guarda harness has three — allowing the performers to move easier and more safely.
The company travels with four professional climbers including Kevin Doug-herty who is rated as one of the best climbers in the world — of mountains, that is. He is also the only one who speaks English. Based in Kenya, Kevin runs his own company offering his services as a mountain guide as well as working for the Discovery channel operating flying systems for the cameras.
“I operate and maintain the aerial system,” says Dougherty. “This show is at the forefront of nylon technology as opposed to cable. The advantage of nylon is that it's dynamic — if you were to fall on cable you could break your back because cable does not stretch. The amount of stretch in a steel cable is so small you can't use it; when you shock load a steel cable you're putting a mega strain on the whole system.
“With nylon a lot of the shock is absorbed throughout the system, which makes it safer,” Dougherty continues. “I don't know of many shows that use nylon technology in the same way that we do, it's quite a niche. Cabling is fine for moving a static object but as soon as you want to start jumping and doing dynamic movement it's no good.”
The nylon ropes also interact better with the copious amounts of water used in the show. This water needs to be delivered at a special temperature so that the actors don't suffer too much. The non-slip flooring travels with the production as do the dry ice machines.
The ratio of crew to performers on Villa Villa is about 4:1, which is not surprising when you take into account that most of the aerial action is controlled manually by rope pulleys. Plenty of hands are also needed to ensure that all the performers, and occasionally audience members, are clipped into their harnesses safely during the show.
However there are a few scenes where motors are required: the running up the wall sequence, when there are three performers swinging off one rope, and when one of the cast has to move both up and down as well as side to side.
The key to De La Guarda's success is practice. The troupe practices every day, without fail, because getting everyone in the right place at the right time safely is the major priority. Although there is communication for the crew via intercom, the performers rely more on continual rehearsals to ensure their safety. Several moments in the show are in darkness, and there are also special effects such as smoke, wind, and water showers that make vision difficult.
The lighting, supplied by Bytecraft Entertainment, relies on close to 300 analogue fixtures such as lekos, PAR cans, fresnels, pin spots, and cyc lights. The only examples of recent lighting technology are seven Martin Atomic strobes. Moving lights are those manhandled by the crew to follow the performers movements.
Audio, supplied by Jands Production Services, includes a Meyer MSL4 system suspended from six different locations while the sub lows are placed on the floor. The console is a Soundcraft SM32 with various playback machines.
One poor guy from Jands regularly has to purchase box loads of non-lubricated condoms, and not because the troupe attracts hoards of groupies. The condoms are used to protect the Shure radio microphones worn by each of the performers.
“This is one of the most complicated shows I've ever been involved with,” says a local crewmember. “I've been working in the rigging industry for ten years. Every aspect of this show comes down to timing. The rigging, scaffolding, sound and lighting are checked every day. I did the flying for the Olympics Opening Ceremony here in Sydney and comparing the technical aspects of both productions I believe that this show, for the ratio and size, is more technical.
“When you look at the budget that was allowed for the Olympic Ceremony and compare it to De La Guarda,” the crewmember continues, “it's a totally different ball game. The company comes from an extremely poverty stricken country yet it is all molded together to produce a brilliant show.”