Orchestra in the mosh pit or vice versa?

Australia's "Circa" acrobats meet France's "Debussy Quartet" at Chan Centre

Shostakovich chamber music for strings, ropes and high wires. Photo: Paul Joseph

“Circus,” to me, conjures up visions of spangly costumes, tinkly music, cotton candy, hyper-excited children and carnie barkers luring the rubes with promises of “death-defying” feats.

Cognitively dissonant, then, to see a Chablis-sipping crowd of suave, adult Vancouverites packing into a high-culture temple like UBC’s Chan Centre for Opus, a live circus collaboration between Australia’s Circa acrobatic troupe and France’s Debussy String Quartet.

But this was a circus for boffins. Circa, after all, is no run-of-the-mill Big Top extravaganza, but rather a renowned “second wave” physical theatre ensemble. And Dmitri Shostokovich’s brooding, edgy chamber music is hardly anyone’s idea of a jolly calliope.

The programme sure was “death-defying,” though. Such, anyway, was Opus’ avowed mission. As he explained in his post-show talk, Circa’s founding director Yaron Lifshitz started his performing career in stage plays. But he got tired of “people saying lines they didn’t write and pretending to be someone they aren’t.” It all seemed so dead, like taxidermy.

So to defy that death cult, Lifshitz groped his way to the circus art form as more of a living medium, closer to the original roots of drama in high-stakes ritual whose officiants do “extreme things” right there before you in real time – “very visceral.”

More prosaically, Opus is death-defying in the conventional circus sense that much of it was performed aloft on hoops, ropes, high-wires and trapezes suspended from the ceiling of the Chan Centre’s grand cirque rotunda – all without a net.

Death-defying, too, not only for the circus performers, but also for the musicians. When they weren’t directly below some parlous stunt aloft, the maestri found themselves engulfed in tottery human pyramids or careening tumblers. At one point, the Debussy foursome even allowed themselves to be blindfolded and marched them about the stage, all without missing a virtuosic beat.

Imperturbable they may have been, but hardly without evident angst. The whole mood was sombre and Spartan, with everyone was costumed in stark black and white and grey. Facial expressions and body language was visibly tense and strained, matching the dissonance – gloomy and screechy, by turns – of the Shostakovich score.

Only when Shostakovich takes a more playful turn, as in some of the quartets’ polka movements, do the Circa daredevils lighten up accordingly. They toss each other around, sprint across each other’s backs and shoulders, even venture a smile or two.

One amazing contortionist even manages to stand on her own head. It’s not a simple matter of turning upside-down to balance oneself upright; rather she furls her spine into a tight curl to pose her feet right onto her own skull. You’d have to have been there to really “get it.”

Lifschitz likes to cite an Andy Warhol quote to the effect that sex and parties are things can only be really appreciated first-hand. Circus, he’s convinced, should also be included in this list. Very visceral, indeed.

…Alex Lau contributed impressions to this review.  

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