Inspired by the daring men and women of Victorian-era showbiz, “The Great Farini Project” posits an intense rivalry between two of its most fearless stars – French veteran high wire artist Jean Gravelet-Blondin and his upstart imitator, American William Hunt, aka the Great Farini. Though in actuality the pair never met, choreographer/co-director Sharon B. Moore and co-director/composer/dramaturge Derek Aasland have worked hard to create a dense speculative relationship between them, one that’s based on mutual attraction as well as jealousy and distrust.
The setting was deftly suggested at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre with some decidedly Victorian touches – footlights demarcating the lip of an imaginary stage; warm, low lights; and an armchair and table suggesting a gentleman’s library off to one side. Two large teeter-totter-like E.S. Dance Instruments, aka “flying devices”, took up much of the mainstage real estate but to the directors’ credit, never detracted from the scenes in which they weren’t being deployed.
The piece roughly charts the arcs of our heroes’ careers — complete with flashbacks and foreshadowing — from basic training to final moments. It’s an ambitious work that asks a great deal from its two main characters, requiring them to declaim text and dance simultaneously, as well as to fly and perform party tricks.
Farini (Brian Soloman) and Blondin (Brendan Wyatt) come out swinging – the first words out of their mouths are “shithead” and “asshole”. This sets up a pugilistic (and, as you might guess by the language, somewhat juvenile) antagonism that is sustained throughout the eighty-minute show. Within this aggressive dynamic, Moore fully explores the possibilities of the male duet. Each dance has its device and theme — measuring tape, training, placing hands on different parts of the body with varying degrees of violence, gymnastics, circus tricks and tap dancing. There are few tender moments though both performers – particularly Soloman – expose their vulnerability at times. There are also theatrical scenes set at parties, for example, or at a fortune-teller’s, which are designed to move the narrative along. But then it’s back to the braggadocio and posturing. Initially it’s entertaining watching Farini and Blondin perform in these sometimes comic duets, during which they name-call and generally rant and throw themselves at each other at top speed. But after a while you want the pace to abate a little. You really want to hear the words. And that is almost impossible given the combination of a relentless soundtrack of classic and new compositions by Aasland and David Lang and extreme physical exertion on the part of these two stunning dancers and their (somewhat) limited acting skills.
At times, there are glimpses of the tonally more nuanced work this could have been. Two thirds of the way through the evening, Wyatt performs a brief and expressive solo that conveys a depth of emotion while reiterating some of the choreographic themes that had popped up in all those duets (for instance, rising up on his bare toes as if en pointe for several steps as a kind of yearning against gravity). There were no jokes and no business and no aggression and it was a relief.
The most magical moments in “The Great Farini Project” occur when they fire up the flying machines and take to the air. Sven Johansson from BC devised these miraculous E.S. Dance Instruments and is credited as aerial choreographer. They work on the principle of counterweight, with an operator and weights on one end and the performer strapped onto the other. The operator deftly “flies” the performer, who is also able to push off rigid surfaces and rotate a full 360 degrees in the air.
Moore uses the devices sparingly. And thus the audience ends up really savouring the beauty of Solomon and Wyatt flying in from the wings (despite getting periodically caught up in the curtains) and hovering mid-air for certain key scenes. In one, Solomon re-lives the memory of losing his female partner Mary to a fall during an aerial routine (thus rationalizing the prior use of funereal props — a small coffin, a headstone). In another scene, the pair fly over the front rows of the audience, one scattering flowers in celebration, the other scooping them right back up. And there’s a gorgeous final image of the pair high up in the theatre literally turning out each other’s lights in the form of two bare light bulbs.
Sadly, there are just not enough of these poetic moments and “The Great Farini Project” rather collapses under the weight of its ambitions. In the end, frustration lingers, albeit alongside a profound admiration for the stamina and talent of the two main performers and for the challenge that Moore and team have taken on. A judicious editing hand might have pared the show right back by twenty minutes or so and created a less monotonic trajectory for all the genuine delights in the narrative. More can be more, but not always. And much as you want to love this production, it just won’t chill out and let you
Edited by Kaija Pepper