There’s a dream-like quality to Acrobuffos’ Air Play, especially with its vivid use of colour and movement. When a six-foot balloon floats above your head, you can see exactly how it got there yet experience the moment with the intensity of childhood wonder. “We’re clowns playing in the breath-taking beauty of air sculptures, and half our job is to let you enjoy it as much as we do,” Christina Gelsone tells me. Together with partner Seth Bloom she has created a show which mixes two unlikely bedfellows – comedy and art.
The pair have performed in over 25 countries, in stadiums, circus rings, parks, piazzas, refugee camps, and giant theatres, and all these places have been connected by one very human response. “We’ve yet to come across a culture that doesn’t laugh,” says Bloom. “Also, people want to feel and be moved, and a good clown can do both, making you laugh and cry.” They met in 2003, whilst performing in Afghanistan. “We even have a picture of the day we met,” continues Bloom. “It was under a dusty tree, near a dented orange VW Beetle in front of a bombed-out high school. We had no idea we’d fall in love and travel the world for 11 years.” While their show is filled with the spectacle of flying umbrellas, enormous balloons, kites and a sparkling snow globe, it’s narrative rests on modern clowning. This isn’t craft reliant on make-up, big shoes or red noses anymore.
Bloom studied Fine Arts at university, going on to graduate from three different clown schools. Gelsone’s background was in professional ballet dancer before embracing acrobatics and clowning. The pair even married at a clown festival in 2007. They align with the silent screen tradition of Charlie Chaplin or Mr Bean – amusing without huge wigs – although their shows incorporate many other circus skills. “We juggle, we fly things high in the air, we make people laugh, we work in a circular ring, we even ‘tame’ huge fabrics,” says Christina. In 2010 she saw a video of fellow New Yorker Daniel Wurtzel’s air sculpture Pas de Deux. Intrigued, they got in contact. Air Play is essentially an experiment in blending clowning and sculpture.
Aided by specially-positioned fans, a battery-powered leaf blower, and a little helium, they cast a range of everyday objects into the air. It might look simple, but it’s not. Every venue has a different pattern of air circulation, which they must adapt to – and then there’s the task of finding umbrellas with appropriate aerodynamics. “We bought and tested 29 different kinds,” Bloom tells me. “Only three could fly. We did, by default, also figure out which umbrellas didn’t fly at all, and are best for windy days: look for the large, heavy umbrellas with a horizontal vent in the fabric. Those can survive the strongest gales…” Onstage they move in silence, perfectly choreographed to a rich and dynamic soundtrack. There’s showing off and squabbling, the pair locked eternally in a battle to outdo each other amidst the swirling fabrics and glitter.
Gelsone admits they’re a little obsessed with flight and movement. She travels with a book about weather patterns and clouds, and her screensaver is a real-time world-wide wind map. “Also, I’m crazy about birds – would I be called a ‘twitcher’ in the UK? – especially with how they fly and their migratory patterns.” They regard their work as visual poems. Each scene is distilled to the core, like a ‘bento box of perfect things.’ There’s laughter, there’s beauty, and just the seeds of a story. “The less we say, the more you see,” muses Gelsone. “Everyone takes away a slightly different experience from Air Play”. While there is plenty of playfulness to be found in the modern world, families are experiencing this together less.
This show has been crafted for every age and any group to understand, so the whole family enjoys it together. “Adults will recognise their own story of growing up, and kids will wonder how we crawled into the enormous balloons,” she adds.” Even on stage this pair can sense the wonder amongst the audience as soon as the curtain goes up on two fabrics dancing effortlessly in the air. “There’s a moment in the show when Christina floats a large red balloon over the audience,” says Bloom. “We can see even the most jaded audience member tip his or her head back, relax in their body, and often drop their jaw open,”
Acrobuffos’ Air Play comes to Brighton Dome on – Thurs 21 – Tues 26 Dec.