The Romanticism of Undermän at Le National

In the old fashioned opulence of the National, we were treated to a new take on the literal underdogs of the circus scene: the ‘undermen’ of Undermän.

Though a Swedish term, the name works perfectly in English, too. An undermän is the stable part of an acrobatic duo, that is to say the one responsible for the heavy lifting. The three main performers in this piece by Cirkus Cirkör are all ‘undermen’ who have lost their partners and are now trying to readjust and reinvent themselves in the wake of this shift.

The acrobatic partner of an undermän (a topwoman, perhaps?) seems to frequently end up becoming a romantic partner, as well. This is unsurprising, what with the trust their work requires, the hours and hours spent together, and the close physical nature of the duo’s relationship. Not to mention the fact that both of them will have similar interests and fit, well-trained bodies that must be constantly grabbed—that can’t hurt.

The three main players in the show are all scruffy, sturdy boys, and they’re all musicians too, taking breaks from the acrobatics to play drums, guitar, bass, accordion, looping machines. Their accompanying musician friend, Andreas Tengblad, (who did at one point manage to pull off a somersault) added his talents on cello and electric guitar, as well. He even performs a lovely solo at one point that involves him on his knees, singing as he plucks away at the strings of his cello.

The show begins with a monologue by one of the acrobats about how he met his partner. There is no denying that the two were in love, and that once that love crumbled, working together as a duo became next to impossible. I can’t imagine having to train for hours on a daily basis with someone who just broke my heart, or whose heart I just broke.

Melancholic, theatrical, and sometimes angsty, this show is deeply intertwined with its live musical score. The timing of the performance and the atmosphere of some pieces rests heavily on the music. Despite some simple theatrics, which were effective and not at all heavy-handed, the actors and the show itself feel very casual. The boys smash stuff, throw things around, and take time to monologue on fights, anger, and having “issues”—it is not a show about sunshine and roses.

There’s a piece involving a huge hoop and a single feather, which begins almost as a slow dance between the undermän and his hoop. Sometimes the hoop gets the stage and spotlight all to itself, as the undermän stands back, underscoring perhaps that he is used to being the less flashy member of a performance.

As the show progresses, the undermen juggle heavy kettlebells and bouncy clubs in complicated and impressive patterns, often shouting and smiling. There’s a playful edge to the way they treat each other, making it obvious that they are friends as well as co-workers. They are also pleasantly unfazed when they mess up, making for an overall very sweet and casual show.

They execute some impressive undermän-on-undermän lifts, meaning these boys were each heaving something around two hundred pounds over their heads. Though undermen, and so maybe not trained for the really flashy moves, they still pulled off some awesome lifts, tumbles, flips, and jumps. Despite the sort of self-deprecating nature of the show as a whole, these performers are still powerful, highly-trained acrobats.

After humbly thanking us for the applause, the undermen invited us to stay behind for a musical performance, a band made up of the undermen’s musician friend Andreas and a songstress from their homeland. Given that I’m not used to deciphering Swedish phonemes her name was, unfortunately, lost on me. She and Andreas have recently released an album together, though.

The music that these two make together is very soft and indie-sounding, haunting, and driven mainly by the beauty of their vocal harmonies. Clearly talented vocalists, the two of them held tight, sometimes vaguely (though obviously purposefully) discordant harmonies, Andreas’ smooth tenor melding nicely with his partner’s timbre. The lyrics of their often short little tunes were creative, cute, and touching—my favourite was probably “Peaches”, a song about staying behind in a small town, even when all your friends leave for broader horizons, because “my peaches grow here”.

The musical arrangements were light-handed and sparse, as they accompanied themselves on guitar, glockenspiel, and a small, Celtic-style drum. Like much of the Undermän show, the music these two played for the crowd had a melancholic tinge, Andreas’ guitar playing resonating chords with a folksy and sometimes almost surf quality.

The boys from Undermän stayed behind to support their friends, and we were treated to them bantering playfully with the singers onstage from the back rows of the theater. It made the crowd smile, and further reinforced my impression that these are all just young buds who found a productive way to vent some of their angst about life, and put it on display for us to sympathize with.

An effective, touching, and talent-filled show, Undermän will be at le National until the 14th of July, part of Montréal Complètement Crique.

Photos Courtesy of: Montréal Complètement Cirque

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