Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Sense of Wonder: Circa's Opus

Circa's Opus at the Brisbane Festival (photo by Michel Cavalca)

The circus recently came to town. But instead of lions and tigers and bears (oh my), 15 aerial-born Australian gymnasts and four barefoot musicians, all members of France’s acclaimed Debussy String Quartet, wowed the eyeballs of everyone packed into Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre of the Arts. The occasion was the North American debut of Circa, a troupe of gravity-defying wonders currently on a world tour. The Brisbane-based company was in Toronto from Nov. 12 through 16, presented by Canadian Stage, and tonight and through Nov. 26 is in Montreal performing at La Tohu, the circus theatre on Jarry St. E. The show there is the same as was recently seen here – Opus, an 85-minute non-stop piece of acrobatic dance theatre that is a truly one-of-a-kind theatrical experience: equal parts brute strength and soul-tingling poetry. It shouldn't be missed.

Circa is erotic and fierce – a new breed of circus. People unfamiliar with the troupe from Down Under might be tempted to think immediately of Cirque du Soleil as a way of understanding their practice of “nouveau cirque,” a genre of the performing arts in which lighting, costumes, music, scenic design and other tools of the theatre are used to heighten thematic content within a circus show. It’s not an unfair comparison. Like the Montreal-born enterprise founded 30 years ago by Guy Lalibert√©, Circa (the name suggests a circus that is an approximate) is similarly devoted to revitalizing the circus arts, pushing them in a new, contemporary direction. Australian theatre director Yaron Lifschitz created the company in 2004 with the idea of communicating something new with its limited physical language. He has achieved this by constructing his circus spectacles as if they were choreographed works of art where line, form, shape, rhythm and weight are as valued as aerial manoeuvres and daredevil stunts. Seemingly impossible feats of human strength, balance and agility dazzle; but they are here not strictly the point. The aim is more to bend the body, and the spectator's mind along with it.

Circa's Opus in Melbourne.

How Circa differs from Cirque du Soleil lies in how it presents its ideas. If Opus can be taken as an example of what Circa is about (there are eight productions altogether in its stable of original work), the Australian company eschews the kind of narrative structure and character work favoured by Cirque du Soleil to concentrate more on a series of evocative images that suggest states of being more than they tell a story. Significantly, there are no clowns in Opus, no banana peels and easy laughs. It takes itself more seriously. The poetic cycle of arresting images evokes the alienation and aggression of a Francis Bacon painting and the delicacy and vulnerability of a silkworm cocoon. The sense of heart-stopping drama leaps boldly from the unexpected – the juxtaposition of things light and dark, soft and heavy caught in a shared struggle for equilibrium.

It’s an interesting concept given that what makes the circus so thrilling is the fear of a loss of balance –trapeze artists stumbling to their deaths, for instance, or the strong man becoming crushed by the poundage meant to make him heroic. In Opus there is some of that stomach-churning anticipation associated with traditional circus spectacles: Will the falling aerialist actually stop before it’s too late? Will the tumblers stumble? Can the thigh muscles really sustain such precariously high human towers? It’s all exhilarating to watch, especially when the performers move en masse with speed and agility without colliding with each other or the musicians up there with them on the stage. So the sense of wonder is there. But with it comes an added dimension borrowed from the worlds of visual art and modern dance: a manifestation of feeling and psychological depth. This is not just acrobatics, in other words. Opus runs deeper than muscle and bone and it appeals to the audience in more than just a visceral way. Lifschitz approaches the circus like a choreographer; he shapes moving bodies according to the syncopated rhythms of dance; he gives them a sense of defined direction. But he also takes them out of the ordinary. if this is a dance it is one performed upside down and in defiance of all the laws gravity. This is what so much ballet attempts to achieve, a pulling away from the earth, and Lifschitz ingeniously achieves it by hiking his performers up ropes and propelling them like boomerangs through the air. Yes, they always come back, ready to deliver feats more virtuosic than what came before.

Circa's Opus at the Perth International Arts Festival.

The performers – there is a strong temptation to call them dancers – are graceful as ballerinas; all have arched feet, and pointed toes; all have a combined background in athletics and performance. Several started from childhood studying circus arts. Their training is impeccable. They move silently and hit the floor with a whisper. They glide and winnow, arching and flinging themselves backward like dolphins in wide open waters. Opus is a word that means work and here it can be interpreted as hard, physical labour. The men are herculean but without bulging muscles. They do not look like circus freaks. But what they do defies logic. They hook onto each other and raise each other upwards, high and higher, using just their innate strength. They are human cranes and human flies rolled into one. The women are just as strong and can lift the men as easily as the men can lift them; one even becomes a human skipping rope. Their strength is deceptive. The show begins with a soloist in street clothes – a crisp white shirt and dress pants – who silently climbs a silk rope to twist himself in it, becoming a piece of airborne sculpture. The image is as powerful as the strength needed to create the illusion. But that potency is initially hidden. The entire show exists to draw out the transformational impulse within the human body. The results are transcendent.

The shifting spectrum of emotional colours is triggered by physical daring, and held in suspense by the musicians accompanying the performers live on stage. They play a tapestry of Shostakovich string quartets ranging from the sweet to the strident, and it is not just background music. The musicians in the Debussy String Quartet dramatically interact with the performers, particularly during a section in which they are blindfolded and perform among them in their own sort of darkness. In other instances, the fury of their playing mimics – or ignites – the gymnasts’ dynamic physical explosions. As in a work of dance, the movement makes visual the music; it articulates the pulses and extravagant impetuosity of the musical drive. Shostakovich divides critics; you either love or hate his searing modernism. But in Opus his music blends seamlessly with the overall performance, sounding extraordinarily exuberant and alive. It’s another instance in Opus where opposites – in this case high classical music and the so-called low-brow art of the circus – are counterweights held in equilibrium.

But as bodies shoot through the air like flying projectiles and torpedo sideways through hula hoops held several feet above the ground, you’re not thinking of things in balance but things intent on blowing your mind. The goal is to create a sense of wonder. Lifschitz accomplishes this even when he slows it all down, laying bodies on the floor. But even relaxing his ensemble is working. Their prone bodies suddenly appear as logs in a river, rolling beneath the feet of a lone performer walking gingerly upon the. It’s a monumentally beautiful image – one of many in this piece – and it inspires genuine of surprise. There’s not another circus like it.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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