In a circle of red-brown dust-dry earth, two men spin themselves into a frenzy. They could be friends, they could be rivals. They could, indeed, be both at once. This much is true though: Stefan Kinsman and Juan Ignacio Tula, members of Mathurin Bolze's brilliant French troupe Compagnie MPTA, wring a metal ring for everything its worth in Santa Madera. Over the course of an hour, they showcase a single piece of apparatus in the same way world-class chefs can make a great plate out of just one ingredient.
The Cyr wheel is often impressive, but rarely expressive. A single ring of steel or aluminium, it encircles the performer like Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man and, inside it, human bodies are turned into spinning tops. Upright, it spins in graceful, even loops but, as it nears the floor, it speeds up, rattling like a coin at the end of a spin. That's the basics and, in the first five minutes, Tula has pushed them to the max. He spins himself into a cyclone, then lowers himself almost to the floor; his nose hovering inches above the stage. The sound is like a rolling stampede.
They're heavy, Cyr wheels; around 15-20 kilos – easily enough, at speed, to crush the small bones in a hand or a foot. Kinsman and Tula toy with that weight. One slam to the floor – BANG – demonstrates its danger. As one lies limp, the other inches the wheel up to his head like a pendulum saw. One slip and his skull cracks.
Santa Madera, then, is a game of control. That ring of earth becomes a strict border – a constraint that the performers can't cross. Sometimes the wheel seems to have a will of its own – the two men steering it like matadors battling a bull. Sometimes it yields entirely to them, hitting its mark so precisely that they can sit and wait for it to stop. As it circles around them, the metal misses their toes by mere millimetres. It chews at their fingernails and skims the tops of their heads. The daredevilry's impressive, but so's the precision – the weight of the throw as important as the weight of the wheel.
When Tula hula-hoops with it, the Cyr heaves his body this way and that, hoiking his feet away from the floor. Spinning with it in his hands, like an Olympic hammer thrower, it tugs at his grip and, for a moment, we're in his hands too. One slip and the wheel flies into the seats. Again and again, I found myself holding my breath. Sometimes braced for calamity; sometimes entranced by its beauty. When Kinsman spins, nimbly and playfully, he's truly hypnotic. Tula turns circles under a strobe and you'd swear he was dancing with two metal rings.
In fact, Jérémie Cusenier's lighting is sublime throughout. It lets the two men bask like a beach day in one playful duet, then darkens to a glower that emphasises the ring's threat.
If I've one reservation, however, it's that Santa Madera's missing metaphorical resonance. It touches on masculinity in bare torsos and brute strength, and dwells on the nature of male relationships – rivalries when the pair wrestle in or over the ring; friendships when they swing around it like schoolkids. At one point, they skip through it like two promenading lovers, then elsewhere, it's used as a weaponised forcefield. Even so, however, the Cyr wheel never transforms itself.
It's always impressive in its own right, for just what it is. Sometimes that's spectacular, sometimes it's staggering, and Kinsman and Tula explore its possibilities and let us into the skill. You zoom in on technical details: the rigour of their spotting that stops dizziness kicking in; the tiny readjustments that keeps fingers out of harm; the simple core-strength that keeps them spinning. As it does, the dirt rises up into a dustcloud. Stunning.
Santa Madera runs at Shoreditch Town Hall as part of the London International Mime Festival until 14 January.