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Review: Imbalance (Sadler's Wells, London International Mime Festival)

Performance duo Joli Vyann present a mix of circus and dance about being absorbed in technology

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Two people stare into their screens. Sat at the same table, they could be worlds apart. Each is spotlit by their own laptop glare, each hunched over their own machine. Absorbed online, lost to the world, they take no notice of each other. She screws up her eyes. He cricks his neck. Eyeballs flicker. Thumbs twitch.

Our online lives might feel entirely virtual, but performance duo Joli Vyann (Jan Patzke and Olivia Quayle) chase down the physicality of our digital addictions in this circus-dance piece. A collage of dance, gymnastics and circus acts choreographed by Jonathan Lunn, Imbalance see-saws between isolation and togetherness to show the emotional disconnect that stems from all this connectivity.

There's an itchy, jittery edge to the pair's actions. They whir through mechanical routines, faster and faster, sliding phones back and forth. Patske juggles three phones only to answer his coffee. Quayle hangs off the edge of her desk, clinging to it with all her might. A soundtrack of beeps and jazz drums speeds them up and onwards. Sometimes it slips into a prayer song.

Elsewhere, they spin round one another in wild-hand-to-hand routines, her flying over his shoulders and under his arms, almost without making eye contact, and their balances - Quayle perched on Patzke's head or off his torso – are just as uncommunicative.

After all that the stillness of a hold or the simple warmth of a hug feels all the more matterful, and it's only late on, when the two come together in a nimble, playful sequence, that you see flashes of their chemistry. It seems a shame to lose that, and the difference between dancing simultaneously and dancing together is vast.

There's no doubt that Joli Vyann nail the dirge of our digital lives, and the feeling they convey will be familiar to anyone with a smartphone. As a result, however, Imbalance shows us little we don't all live every day - the guilt and the greyness of too much screen time - and it's not sharp or shocking enough to zap us out of our addictions. In focusing on the outward physicality, it skirts the exhilaration of an online existence, the feeling of being pulled in. To watch Imbalance, you'd think the net had nothing to recommend it and no benefits at all.

It ends with a foray into cyberbullying and trolls. Patzke holds his phone torch overhead and swings wildly in the dark; classic horror movie stuff. He is, momentarily, chased by his own shadow, alone and on guard in an empty void, hunted down by his insecurities. But for the limp soundtrack of jeers ("Hashtag Ugly. Hashtag So Fat."), it's a searing image and even if it feels tangential, a shift from ethos to issue, it extends the thinking from a real-world disconnect to abuse online - the ultimate symptom of a lack of empathy.

Performance offers an anecdote - a chunk of time in the here and now, phones off, screens out of sight - but to do so, it has to hold an audience enthralled. In Imbalance, it's just to easy to switch off.

Imbalance runs at the Lillian Bayliss Studio, Sadler's Wells as part of the London International Mime Festival until 19 January.

Click here for our top picks from this year's Mime Festival