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Runners

Who doesn’t love the circus—especially nouveau cirque? With its unclassifiable blend of genres, it reflects so much of what it means to be human—the comedy, absurdity, beauty, sadness, delight, and more. Always tinged with physical risk or challenge, circus inspires childlike wonder. So when I noticed PS21’s dedicated programming of cirque offerings this season, I made the trip upstate to the Hudson Valley to this progressive contemporary arts venue on a bucolic, 100-acre campus. The venue, with its open-air Pavilion theater, was the ideal setting for the US premiere of “Runners,” by Cirk la Putyka from the Czech Republic.

Performance

Cirk la Putyka: “Runners”

Place

PS21, Chatham, NY, July 23, 2023

Words

Karen Greenspan

On the treadmill of life: Cirk la Putyka perform “Runners.”

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A quick perusal of the open stage lays out the physical challenge underlying the show—a giant, 10-meter-long treadmill. Initially covered with an orange nylon tent, the running platform stretches diagonally across the stage. Even the logistics of how it got there is a feat to consider. The impressive machine was constructed in the UK for the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Shipped by sea to Montreal, it was then trucked to PS21 in five separate parts and reassembled here. Not just any venue could accommodate this mega-sized prop.

During the hour-long show, four endearing human beings share their personal stories and reflections that lead to expressive performances on and off the machine. Given the group’s collective process for generating material and the fact that three of the four performers have dance backgrounds, the show’s sophisticated movement aesthetic is no surprise. Nor is the show’s theme, given its title: “Runners” is about the thrills and challenges of running and speed, but also the fast-paced, conveyor-belt nature of modern life.

Cirk la Putyka perform “Runners.”

As the show begins, performers take turns running a couple of laps around the machine, eventually running altogether. They also take turns stepping up to a downstage mic and (breathlessly) narrating a personal anecdote. Once the orange tent magically collapses and is pulled away, Veronika Linhartová, on violin and vocals, and Jakub Ruschka (keyboard, guitar, vocals) become visible upstage. They pump the show with their impassioned music.

Sabina Bočková, in a light blue dress, steps onto the moving belt to sing a song. The machine pulls her backward repeatedly—all while she sings, the long cord of her handheld mic winding around her waist as she twirls forward to ride backward. Eventually a fellow performer disentangles her so she can let loose with leaps, crouches, and rolls atop the unstoppable treadmill. 

Another act showcases all four performers on the treadmill together. They run forward and ride it backward repeatedly, establishing a basic theme. As they develop variations, they sometimes dance in duos, with partnered lifts dramatizing relationships. At other times, they perform more abstract choreography that evolves into triple flips and backward somersaults. In between the variations, they return to the running theme, which binds the work into a charmingly crafted composition.

Cirk la Putyka perform “Runners.”

Viktor Černický reminisces about his childhood experiences of biking down a mountain at top speed. By the time he completes his story, he is lying down in reverie on the treadmill, which suddenly starts up and carries him off the edge. Later he develops his story into a heart-stopping bicycle act on that same treadmill. He first strains to balance in place on the bike. Then he bikes forward and backward—with one arm, with no arms. Finally he keeps riding while chasing, lifting, and tossing a cute girl who has run by. Černický pulls off the action with the playful innocence of the child he has remembered for us.

Dora Sulženko Hoštová recalls hours of fun spent in her grandmother’s closet trying on her collection of dresses. Costumed in an old-fashioned white dress with a multilayered chiffon skirt, Hoštová steps onto the treadmill as sunflower seeds pour onto the moving platform. Dancing her memories of enchantment with leaps, spins, and falls, she kicks up the seeds as if tripping over loose pearls from a broken necklace. Completing the scene of sweet nostalgia is the old-world flavor of an emotive tango that the live musicians play.

The show’s lone acrobat, Ethan Law, pulls out the stops in an amazingly skilled and beautiful Cyr Wheel number. Raising the stakes by stages, he first manipulates the hoop by spinning it around the treadmill. Then he enters the hoop, shifting position on the gleaming circular rim to which he clings as it spins. Finally he places the hoop on the end of the treadmill. It looks like a beckoning entranceway. He steps into the circle as the belt moves them both into more thrilling possibilities. In an elegant homage to his partner the Cyr Wheel, Law jumps off the treadmill, leaving the giant wheel to finish the act—spinning alone.

Cirk la Putyka perform “Runners.”

In true egalitarian fashion, the two musicians step onto the moving platform, facing directly into the audience. Like heroes in a rock musical, they play a stirring musical number while bathed in luminous lighting (designed by Jiří Maleňákas) as they press continually forward against the backward pull of the machine. 

It is not long before the other performers push themselves onto the front of the treadmill as if vying for first place in some metaphorical race. They are dressed in running shorts and sneakers and, thanks to months of training with an actual running coach, they are running at full throttle. With the shift to full frontal view, we see the joy, the effort, the hope, and the disappointment inscribed on their faces. One by one, they lose their lead and back off the belt. With only two runners left and an announcer updating the score as the music intensifies, the tension mounts. One of the two is thrown backward and out of the race, leaving just the winner. As if to stop time, he continues the run, shouting and gesticulating in total elation with light rays emanating from his body. Who doesn’t love the circus?

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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