Australian circus company Circa are becoming firm favourites on the UK touring scene. Previous shows such as Beyond, Opus and How Like An Angel have thrilled audiences across the country. In May, the company have five different productions touring the UK and return to long time partners the Norfolk And Norwich Festival to premiere a new work.
Circa’s Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz spoke to Glen Pearce ahead of the World Premiere of What Will Have Been.
Circa was founded in 2004. What was the driving force behind setting it up?
It came from a company called Rock And Roll Circus, which was a terrific and very important company of its day but had reached the end of its natural lifespan. I wanted to ask a simple question – can you take circus seriously as an art form. Can you make searching and challenging works of art out of circus, and does circus have a future as a contemporary form?
So we took those questions and a small, intrepid, group of nutcases got together and started doing things that you shouldn’t really do with circus.
Circa fuses many styles – how would you describe it to people who may not have seen one of your productions?
Increasingly we doing different things, we’re collaborating with small artists, we’ve made a film, we’ve worked in cathedrals here – there are a range of different things. It’s not the style or what it looks like but the approach, to fearlessly question and interrogate. Asking what is it, why is it that way, does it have to be that way? Generally that means we bring it right back so we can see what it is.
Your background is in opera, theatre, physical theatre and circus, does having a cross-genre background help shape Circa shows?
It helps but primarily I have a restless mind and don’t believe what people tell me!
I came across a beautiful line the other day in an article, it’s not mine, but I’m going to steal it. They said they could never tolerate not knowing why and I think that’s very me, I always want to know why.
I don’t necessarily have a better idea, but I want to know why. Why can’t we put blue and green together or put two aerial acts in a row, well why not? Where did that theory come from? For us that means I’m going to make catastrophic mistakes but at least they’re going to be in the service of some kind of greater understanding.
Circa has a strong connection with both Norwich and East Anglia. How important is it to be able to build those relationships and tour your work to an international audience that’s building with you?
It’s fantastic. The first time I came to Norwich it felt like we were from another planet and now it feels like we’re coming home.
The conversation you have with your partner of twenty years is very different to that you have with a beautiful stranger in a pub, they both have an importance but with one you can normally go much deeper. It’s almost a form of anti-touring. Touring by itself is just delivering a show somewhere. We get off a plane, we’re efficient, we come in a box and you put it into a theatre. That works really well, but the really special things happen where you have a relationship, where there’s a connection to work. In Norwich they’ve seen The Space Between, How Like An Angel, Beyond, How Like An Angel again, S and now What Will Have Been and that’s a big journey of work over the last ten years.
Your new show What Will Have Been premieres this week in Norwich – tell us about it.
In a way it’s an attempt to get rid of some of the trappings. Everyone wants bigger and bigger concepts. Can you perform that in a cathedral, can you perform that hanging from a plane, can you perform that on the moon? We could do many of those things but what I’d really like to do is strip it right back.
In this show there are three artists and a violinist and basically they just do what they do. It’s physically extraordinary, they create connection, emotion and a feeling like a ritual. It’s so fantastically long for a speigeltent. A speigeltent is the place you go to be entertained, where you stop and clap between each act and just not think, and this is really the opposite of that.
You often incorporate live musicians into your shows alongside you circus artists. Is that a theme you like to develop?
Actually I’m trying to get away from it. Music is a very important part of how I make shows and I love live music. On the whole, though it’s almost too much of a default. However, in a speigeltent, when you listen to a 15-minute piece of Bach played on a solo violin you silently go to a place you’ve never been to in a speigeltent before. You’re listening to one of the solo instrumental masterworks, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever written, and when you hear that played live you go I’m no longer in a speigeltent anymore.
One of the things I set out was that I wanted anyone who comes back to a speigeltent after seeing this show to be deeply unsatisfied with what they are given. I have many friends in shows that sell our art form and our audiences short. They say if you don’t enjoy this straight away, if this doesn’t instantly melt in your mouth like a beautiful flavour, if you can’t clap every three or four minutes then it’s not a great show. I don’t believe that true, I don’t believe we’ve lost our capacity for wonder, our ability to engage with new ideas.
It’s the difference between desert and main course, I don’t want circus to just be the pudding, I want circus to be the main course. I want us to have to chew it and grapple with it, talk over it and argue about it and go somewhere emotionally with it, rather than just go that was delicious and can I have another serving, please.
Circus has grown incredibly in popularity over recent years. Why do you think that is?
The reason why circus works is because it isn’t boring. I’m going to be desperately unpopular, but we know that a great piece of theatre is an extraordinary thing, but we also know that most theatre is very boring! Not everyone agrees with that but if you look at the size of theatre audiences compared with a live music audience it gives you the idea that it’s not exciting to most people. That’s a pity as the great stories of our civilisation get told in the theatre; I believe it’s an important place for us to be.
Circus bridges that divide, circus brings thrill and immediacy; it brings a lack of respect for kowtowing to convention and brings a sense of thrill of wonder. I love that about circus, people still need to come to rooms together, come to public space as private individuals to share communal experiences.
Circa are performing five different productions in the UK during May – is it challenging to keep track of who is where?
I gave up years ago! We really are an ensemble company, a few groups doing multiple shows. Yes, sometimes we get a bit confused and sometimes the wrong bits end up in the wrong place but on the whole we’re pretty good at knowing who needs to be where. At our heart we’re a series of small companies who are linked together. We work very hard not to be a commodity and not to become the Circa experience. I want people to say I’m going to Circa and I’ve no idea what I’m going to see.
What’s next for Circa?
We’ve a hugely exciting year ahead. With this company plus one I go to make a show called Close Up, which is a show for the Edinburgh Fringe. I make a show with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, I make a show called Il Ritorno which is an opera meets circus project. We then do some restudying of an earlier show as we have a long run in Berlin coming up and then we start planning next year and coming up with another load of strange and weird things to do!
Circa’s What Will Have Been premieres at the Norfolk &Norwich Festival and runs until 24 May.