Disconcertingly, Zimerman and de Perrot’s Hans Was Heiri begins with subtraction. A lone figure—Dimitri de Perrot, the show’s musician—enters stage left, sits down at a DJ station, and begins to tinker. All of a sudden, the sound in the room drops precipitously—he has cut out a track of “audience noise” that had been playing, indistinguishable before from the sounds produced by the real audience and only now, through its absence, revealing itself. The weird negative space it creates in leaving functions as a kind of sonic vacuum, sucking the air out of the theatre, throwing intense focus towards the stage and installing a vaguely jocular malaise that will persist throughout the rest of the show. “Look,” Heiri says from the very beginning, “your perceptions are flawed. Nothing is as it seems.”

It’s an appropriate kick-off for a show that paints a picture of man as a creature of severely limited perspective, struggling to find his footing in a world with which he has lost touch. For its case example it takes city-dwellers in the 21st century, living in a byzantine ecosystem of opaque technology and social codes. The flesh of these structures has long since eroded, and the postmodern denizens of Heiri are exploring what it means to be human in an unknowable environment.

Heiri, in accordance with the Zimmerman & de Perrot trademark, centers its action around a large set piece, in this case a kind of square, four-room dollhouse, cut open in cross-section and mounted on a central axis that allows it to rotate at an angle perpendicular to the stage. The performers spend the majority of their stage time navigating the shifting angles of their environment with varying degrees of aplomb.

Copyright Mario Del Curto

Copyright Mario Del Curto

The dollhouse provides the central metaphor of the show, an imposing piece of architecture with a mind of its own. Although obviously a man-made structure, the dollhouse is no longer at the service of its inhabitants. Rather, it has turned the tables, subjecting them to its unpredictable will. We can see everything that happens inside the structure, but for the acrobats each of the four rooms is an isolated space—their view of the other three rooms is obscured. Architecture, which man brought about to make life easier, becomes a powerful, controlling presence, limiting the acrobats’ perspective and denying them real freedom.

In one of the most riveting sequences of the show, a lone acrobat scrambles around the outside of the structure as it rotates—a contemporary twist on that traditional circus stalwart, the Wheel of Death. As the surface he is on implacably approaches verticality, he is forced to scramble around the corner and onto the next surface. Although this new side initially seems to be safely horizontal, it too is soon threatening to disappear out from under him. For the acrobat, stability could be around every corner, and each sprint to the finish line could potentially be the last he must perform. But he can’t see the whole picture: we know that what looks to him like progress is in fact a cyclical journey.

The Wheel of Death sequence is a rare solo moment in a show that really finds its voice in group sequences. Although it is quite difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on when four or five acrobats are tumbling around the dollhouse simultaneously, that’s sort of the point: Zimmerman & de Perrot do a great job of manipulating audience focus so that acrobats can slip in an out of trapdoors, disappearing and re-appearing while the attention is on a different player. The polyphonic nature of the performance (echoed by de Perrot’s excellent use of sampling at the turntables) is sometimes overwhelming, but in that way distinctly urban and contemporary—the show happens at the pace of city life today, and the performers interact with each other with the superficial familiarity of urban neighbors. And although not every moment in Heiri is so dispersed, moments of polyphony, chaos, and asymmetry persist on the edge of order throughout the show.

The chaos is emphasized by the performers constantly changing appearance and character. The opening image of the piece—a choreography featuring wooden stick-figure puppets wearing the acrobats’ costumes—introduces the idea of each performer’s outward presentation of character being somehow independent of the real person wearing the clothes. Extremely stylized movement constraints—a hunch-backed shuffle, a high-heeled strut—further obscure the humanity behind the characters. And when, towards the middle of the piece, performers begin to appear wearing each others’ outfits and adopting each other’s styles of movement, it becomes clear that Heiri wants to make a statement about the layers of persona we wear as armor against the cruelty of the modern world and how fragile and elusive those personae are.

Zimmermann & de Perrot – HANS WAS HEIRI from Zimmermann & de Perrot on Vimeo.

It is to the credit of the acrobats that a show that deals with such depressing-sounding issues comes off as charming and hilarious. The “modern man versus technology and alienation” struggle is the core around which the piece is constructed, but Zimmerman & de Perrot has a goofy, almost slapstick aesthetic that saves Heiri from feeling lugubrious or didactic. A contortion piece near the beginning of the show introduces through movement contrasting qualities and materials—stiff and fluid, hard and soft, hidden and revealed, wood against flesh—that all correspond to the architecture versus nature dichotomy. But thanks to the contortionist’s glowing charisma and sheer choreographic skill, the themes are incorporated gracefully into a piece that would be striking even out of the context of the show as a whole. This rigorous commitment to keeping things interesting allows Zimmerman & de Perrot to avoid the workmanlike exposition of themes that sometime bogs down European contemporary circus work.

And despite the somewhat damning picture that it paints of our existential situation in the 21st century, Heiri doesn’t come across as pessimistic. The acrobats approach their frankly hostile environment with good-natured determination. And at the darkest moment of the show—when a statuesque trapeze artist is being slowly dragged through the space, slumped over a metal bar—the tension is broken by a soaring voice, emerging from the dark, suggesting the transcendent power of the human soul. Despite the glut of structures and technologies which limit our perspective and alienate us from each other, a redeeming spark of humanity persists.

Did you see Hans was Heiri at BAM in November? How do you think that kind of circus relates to the kind of circus produced in America today?