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Australia’s Circa: Opus Presented by the Chan Center for the Performing Arts – a review

Circa: Opus, April 28, 2018

My Van City

by Anita Neufeld

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Chan Center for the Performing Arts and they brought Circa: Opusto their concert hall.  While sipping ‘20th anniversary’ Sauv Blanc, we was struck by the heighty aspect of the theater and its focused curves.  The glass windows along with the greenery outside gave the space a peaceful indoor/outdoor feel.  We were entertained by the Azura quartet playing Collidoscope situated on a floor above, a festive start to the evening, which marked the end of their 17/18 season.   

We were then ushered into the concert hall which continued the curved theme and rose a stunning three floors. 

The performance opened with flowing fabric ‘waves’ and the string quartet walking, barefoot onto the stage.   What followed was a sensory feast, with the circus performers engaged in incredible feats of speed, flexibility and athleticism, as well as in interpretive, improvisational movement, all to the stirring music of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1976) played by the Debussy String Quartet. (performed by violinists Christophe Collette and Marc Vieillefon, violist Vincent Deprecq and cellist Cédric Conchon) This quartet is recognized for its devotion to French composers such as Debussy, Fauré and Ravel and they are winners of the prestigious Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition.  According to Collette, they are interested in performing “classical music in another way and to another audience”.  These talented musicians move, interact and perform on stage with a cast of 14 performers and aerialists.

And…while you are still trying to get your head around that…an aerialist begins to perform on eye level with the second floor box seats and you find yourself asking:

“No.  Seriously.  How is that possible???”  

Soon, however, you simply allow yourself to be swept away by the music and the drama and enjoy the power of this unique, intimate performance.  

I would say, however, if you are prone towards the prosaic, or have come into the performance with any preconceived notions about what circus ‘should’ be like, you may have to suspend this to embrace the complex vision of Circa – Opus.  Artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz’s sees circus and “human beings doing extraordinary things” as a way to connect; and it is neither prosaic nor expected.  The choreography of Circa-Opus is contemporary and extremely stylized.  One such segment is what Lifschitz calls “walking lines with tumbles through it”.  The musicians are blindfolded and placed on chairs, all the while continuously playing, while the performers march repeatedly in straight lines with acrobats moving around and through them.  A seemingly simple task, the performers themselves profess the difficulty of the rigidity of the pattern and awe at the ability of the musicians to play from memory, blindfolded and separate from their fellow musicians to this extremely complex score of music.   It requires the audience to immerse themselves in the poetry of the shapes and movement Lifschitz has created on stage and it elicits a strong emotional connection.  

That being said, as with any performance, there is a balance between the artistic vision of the production and the expectations of the audience, which in this case, was for some of the more traditional feats of human strength, flexibility and danger that are associated with the term: circus. This was also delivered in full.  Acts performed suspended by ribbons, balancing on chairs, with spinning hoops, and complex tumbling patterns elicited excited gasps from around the Hall and was what I heard the audience buzzing about on the way out.  The performance had no intermission and almost all the performers were on and off stage for the full hour and a half, a testament to their great strength and endurance.  

A unique feature of this performance, which was for a single night and the only stop in Canada, was a panel discussion including the performers, Yaron Lifschitz  and Christoph Collette afterward, mediated by Stephen Heatley – Head of the Department of Theater and Film at UBC.   Comments by the performers spoke overwhelmingly to the privilege of being a part of a production that pushed the boundaries of what defines ‘circus’ and, as well, the privilege of being able to perform to such a “stunning piece of music”. 

During this talk, Yaron Lifschitz quoted Andy Warhol that “sex and parties are the two things in life that you actually have to be there for.” He went on to say: “I would argue that circus is a legitimate third.”   As I look back on this performance designed to engage on so many sensory and emotional levels, I can only agree.

Fri May 4, 2018