This is a challenging review to write. So I’m going to dig deep. Along the way there are going to be spoilers, sweeping generalisations, personal aspirations and extended asides on the challenges of reviewing other people’s work. As ever, these opinions are utterly subjective. As are all reviews anyway. Anyhoo, buckle up.
Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz of Circa has created En Masse, an ambitious new work that combines The Rite of Spring, Schubert’s late songs, distorted electronic compositions by Klara Lewis, and eleven of Circa’s brightest young acrobats, cherry-picked for their startling talent.
One of the challenges of this piece is the segueing of classical music, prestigious dance choreography and contemporary circus. These are somewhat disparate worlds. As with all performing arts, they seek to transport the audience to another world, sometimes using techniques that are unique to their artform, other times borrowing, subverting, elevating the techniques of another. Other than a cursory read of the website copy, I deliberately didn’t research the elements of the show that I didn’t previously know; namely the background to the music, and the original dances. I am not against understanding the background to a work, but I wanted to see whether the performance could tell me what I needed to know about the music, without me having to be previously well-versed in its history. This was a deliberate choice, because opera and contemporary classical is currently desperate to translate to a younger audience, an inexperienced audience, an audience not brought up on the classics, new audiences full of possibilities of growth. And cannot rest upon its laurels with these new audiences, they have no automatic reverence for history, they demand relevance for the present day.
And this is what I felt. The music was presented beautifully, but I cannot tell if it was faithfully represented. On occasion I closed my eyes to enjoy the clear tones of tenor Robert Murray. Whenever my eyes opened they were distracted by the acrobatics, and I felt a dissonance between the heady heights of the music and the repetitive motifs of the circus performance.
The music runs for a lot longer than most circus shows, which is a feat of endurance from the performers, but the audience also. More than once I watched a motif repeated three, then four times. Dare I say, it even became predictable at times.
Don’t get me wrong, these young people are premiere acrobats, and a couple of them have utterly unusual ways of moving, even for a jaded circus aficionado like myself. Bridie Hooper is enchanting from her first grotesquely mesmerising solo all the way to the very end of the show. There is not a single member of the cast who isn’t at the top of their game, and every single one will go on to have exciting careers, of that I am sure.
The tricks alone are. not. enough.
There is an ongoing grumbly conversation that goes on in the arts about whether circus is ‘low’ or ‘high’ art. On one hand it’s a moot point, who cares if the people want to see it and the houses are full. On the other hand, it deeply affects the circus world. As far as the Australia Council for the Arts goes, we are not even a category in our own right. When we apply for funding at any level from local to federal, we have to choose which misshaped category we fit into: are we closer to ‘dance’, to ‘physical theatre’, to ‘theatre’ itself, to ‘community’, to ‘tech’…. Can we bring in some musicians and present ourselves as a live music performance? Perhaps we are still considered ‘emerging and experimental’? For a few years, we were told in no uncertain terms to NOT put circus on our applications to Brisbane City Council, as circus was ‘out of fashion’. (Thankfully they have caught up with the world hunger for circus and are starting to recognise the value of their vibrant local circus ecology). In the meantime, our Australian circus companies are on perpetual touring cycles, cleaning up all the awards in festivals all over the world, in Europe, America, Canada, Asia…. Performing for hundreds of thousands of people (not an exaggeration) Casus, Hot Brown Honey, Briefs, Legs on the Wall, Company 2, Gravity and Other Myths, Time in Space, Casting Off, Head First Acrobats, Yummy Productions, Strut N Fret, I could go on and on… Yet, we don’t even get a category at home!
MY POINT BEING. I applaud the Circa push to get circus to be ‘high’ art. Yaron apparently came into the circus world saying he pretty much hated it and wanted to shake it up and do something breathtakingly new. I don’t think anyone can argue he has achieved that. There is an assumption that dance, as the older sister of circus, has ‘made it’, be we have further to go yet. I suggest that often, circus already is. Our audiences are not yet ready for this in some ways. There were breathtaking skills presented in En Masse, and I winced that in this prestigious environment, the audience still wanted to clap for the tricks, like dancing ponies. (The audience on opening night reserved their applause for just a few tricks, apparently the Saturday night crowd thought they were in the Spiegletent and clapped for every tumble and two-high!) You would never clap for the prima ballerina in Swan Lake, at least, not until the end of the show, and then you can rise to your feet and give it your all. No one would interrupt Rigoletto with a smattering of applause for a tricky two-hand combination. Are our audiences ready and willing to back off enough to get into this new level of circus? For this I truly admire Yaron’s push to teach these crowds that circus can be so much more than tits and ass or slight of hand.
Did they achieve it this time? I have to say I don’t think so, at least not for me, at least not all the way.
Genuinely, I failed to get the story from the performance. I saw the world end. I didn’t see the new one dawn. (See the show notes). Although couched within exemplary skills, the show as a whole had no emotional arc, it seemed to hover at the same level for the entire two acts. The promise of the melancholic decay never capitulated into ether joyous resolution or glorious entropy. We stayed put, in some kind of purgatory, neither winter nor spring. The deadpan faces of the performers seemed lacking in meaning, rather than providing a poignant counterpoint to their exertion. Even at the close, it took two rounds of applause before they smiled, and oh what a relief at long last. Some emotion, some realness. Perhaps this is a preference of my own, but I like my circus performers, like my dancers, to extend the performance to their faces, to their souls? Physical skill only gets you so far.
What makes this ground-based circus show different from, better than, a dance of the same? ‘Circus tricks are actions with a clear start and finish, rather than the extended, more qualitative approach of the dancer.’ There are a lot of opinions on the difference between, but what was lacking here was the transformative abilities of the performers to complete the emotions of the actions with both their faces and the transitions. The bodies en masse did create stunning evocative imagery. I was still watching, intently, seeking something more, wherefore, and why…
The set was bemusing, to be frank. Why was the stage curtained with plastic? Was this a futuristic nod to the oncoming apocalypse? Why the giant plastic bag of air? I honestly and still don’t understand it. Did the money run out?
There is a challenge in paying homage to great works of art. We take a famous work and approach for a specific reason. Perhaps we want to reproduce the original in all its glory. Perhaps we seek to replicate the original effect upon its audience. Do you repeat the choreography of the best and most ecstatic version? Do we turn it on its head? Do we play the music as authentically as possible, and mess with the feels? Perhaps it is simply a way to try and pay homage to an artist we admire and are influenced by. These are all valid reasons to take on a previously performed work, or a classic.
Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed in 1913 and caused a near riot when it was presented. The music elicited ‘laughter and derision…with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.’
It would be hard to replicate the fruit-and-vegetable throwing audiences of scandalised Parisians, and yet, this version felt like a tame homage. It was far from risqué enough to evoke strong emotions, although the history of the piece at least clarifies for me the reason for the convulsions of the acrobats that were repeated ad infinitum.
A friend who attended the Q&A after the show on Thursday night, relays to me that Yaron had originally asked for permission to overlay the electronic music into the Rite and that he was told it must be a full orchestra or two pianos – no changes. How disappointingly short-sighted of the gatekeepers in this case. Have they forgotten the energy that underpins the work? Why shouldn’t a work that was originally scandalous in the extreme, be allowed to be messed with in all directions?
Prescriptive gender norms are always a bit jarring for those of us over at NEHIB. Small girls are caught by big boys; girls have long hair, boys have short. Girls can climb on boys, boys can climb on boys, but boys can’t climb on girls. Meh. There was one scene during the Rite where the girls ran across the stage and flung themselves into the arms of the male acrobats. They inevitably repeated the motif; I wished, I heartfelt wished for the surprise of the boys flinging themselves at the girls. It can be done, as many other companies are currently demonstrating. However, this was not the day for that dream come true.
There were exquisite highlights. I adored the scene early in the first act when the cast were tumbled across the stage, blown by the howling winds of winter. This was easily some of the best tumbling I have ever seen, full of energy and purpose, no movement repeated, high-level skills interspersed throughout but not repeated just to garner applause. A fabulous scene. I loved a scene that recreated a tower of babel-like pyramid, the mass moving in tandem to raise one above them all, before their inevitable crumbling.
A good show, a challenging show, a show I was bored by, a show that made me angry, perplexed me, and tired me all at once. Ultimately, I guess I felt a lot. Were these they emotions they were digging for? Was it a great show? At least a quarter of the audience rose to their feet, they would say yes. Perhaps I sit with the vegetable throwers, the uncouth masses, dissatisfied by the show, but unable to present a better one. Perhaps I needed another gin. I guess I could be as pissed off as a Parisian.
Sometimes, it is impossibly hard to write a review, do you know. Circus is my thing, I work in it, watch buckets of it, I am steeped in it. It is impossible hard to critique a show of this calibre, that will no doubt go on to have loads of top-notch reviews, and they are already rolling in. Am I so misguided that I’ll be the only person to not give this a glowing 5star review? Am I just too uneducated to ‘get’ the music? It is hard to critique peers, friends, colleagues. Will I work with these people, will they close their doors if I am justly or unjustly harsh? It is hard to critique it when my artform is desperately trying to drive a wedge into the door to get some goddamn recognition, and the commensurate funding. It is hard to critique a company that is doing sterling work to try and shove a wedge in that mostly closed door. Nonetheless, En Masse didn’t quite hit home for me.
Five stars for ambition, five stars for skills and pure bravado, three stars for a lacklustre emotional arc, four stars for reworking a classic but a hazy reason as to why, two stars for a sombre set.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
Created by Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble
Director Yaron Lifschitz
Costume Designer Libby McDonnell
Technical Director Jason Organ
Producer Danielle Kellie
Vocalist Robert Murray
Pianists Tamara-Anna Cislowska & Michael Kieran Harvey
Additional music Klara Lewis
Performed by the Circa Ensemble
Caroline Baillon | Nathan Boyle | Martin Evans | Keaton Hentoff-Killian | Rowan Heydon-White | Bridie Hooper | Nathan Knowles | Todd Kilby | Cecilia Martin | Daniel O’Brien | Kimberley O’Brien