Sex positivity with your aerial spins? The WonderWombs wields a fearless mix of circus, women's issues, and laughter

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      At the York Theatre on Wednesday, January 15. Continues until January 19

      One of the most risk-taking shows in town right now is a circus—and we're not necessarily talking about the Dust Palace's gravity-defying aerial routines. 

      The WonderWombs is a fearless and occasionally shocking look at women's issues that are sometimes hard to talk about—body image, shame, sexuality, and consent being only a few. 

      Its gutsily offbeat mix of acrobatic art, bawdy humour, and sobering social commentary doesn't always mesh. Still, you'll get as much of a thrill watching these five women and one nonbinary performer try to pull the bizarre hybrid off as you will watching them twirl at dizzying speeds from all manner of ropes, silks, and poles. At the same time get ready to appreciate how wildly contemporary circus is evolving in this world, and how the form can be used to express very adult themes.

      The highest risks—when the troupe pushes the farthest with both its subject matter and its acrobatics—deliver by far the biggest payoffs here. Rochelle Mangan performs a dazzling aerial pole routine, a transcendant vision of spinning flesh, and then suddenly her colleagues throw a sheet bearing words like "you're too pretty for this" and "you don't have to" over her body and drag her off. It's a perfect example of how the Dust Palace can take you from wonder to deep rumination in a matter of seconds.

      The key is that these New Zealand performers, as incredibly adept they are at pushing the limits of aerial routines, are not afraid to keep it real. And some of the topics they tackle here often feel painfully, intimately honest. They make themselves vulnerable, but at the same time, with their honed limbs and washboard core muscles, they're literal models of female power, as well as body and sex-positivity--an apt kickoff to the Cultch's winter Femme Series.

      While most of the aerial acts elicited cheers from the audience, another on a rope left everyone in stunned silence, as a woman seemed to relive the emotions of sexual assault, or the looping trauma of some other transgression, in the twisting, wrapping, and unwrapping of the piece. It was haunting and mesmerizing. 

      That's not to make The WonderWombs sound overly dark. It abounds with jokes that are goofy, farcical, and lewd. The tone feels markedly different from the troupe's darkly poetic exploration of sexual addiction, The Goblin Market, which came to Vancouver in 2017. The opening here features a hilarious birthing scene that involves a giant balloon, a leaf blower, and what seems like hundreds of yards of long, umbilical-like fabric. The leaf blower also reappears later in the piece in a truly inspiring, flag-waving ode to big, comfortable underwear--something most women can get behind.

      And transgender man Adam Rohe gets a lot of provocative laughs musing on gender, giving a candid view of life "on the other side", at the microphone—at one point calling us on our curiosity about what he hides beneath his belt. The driving soundtrack of blissfully filthy-mouthed femme rap adds to the celebratory mood.

      Some other numbers, from bird-winged dildos to doll-part warehouse workers, don't always hit their mark. But not everything is going to land when you're throwing this much out there. So if you want to gasp, laugh, commiserate, and have an inner debate, often all in consecutive minutes, it's probably worth grabbing your toque and mittens to head out in the Vancouver cold for this one. God knows you'll have something to talk about afterward.