Director: Yaron Lifschitz
Musical Direction: Debussy String Quartet
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Australian company Circa have been at the forefront of new circus since 2004. Their show Opus is a masterful presentation of highly-skilful and innovative acrobatic circus and gymnastics. There is some aerial work in the form of a lone trapeze, aerial silks and straps and some hooping, but the show is essentially grounded, concentrating on floorwork, tumbling and acrobalance, all of which is choreographed and performed with remarkable precision, energy and fearlessness. On that level alone, Opus is a stunning show: a breath-taking, exciting display of human strength, grace, daring, balance and flexibility.
But Opus is way more interesting than that. The show – 14 acrobats, four musicians – is set to a series of Shostakovich quartets, played live on stage by the Debussy String Quartet. Shostakovich’s music – lyrical, mournful, ironic, dark and discordant – is so loaded with the dark politics and history of the early- to mid-20th Century, imbued with codified messages of oppression and defiance, depression and hopefulness, that it takes the show in a really interesting artistic direction. Rather than pursuing the familiar route of theatrical whimsy and playfulness, Circa have embraced the darkness inherent within the music to create a show that is rich in references to history and the dark past.
While being inevitably struck by the physical skill and beauty of the seven men and seven women flying across the stage with such heady recklessness, Opus is dressed and choreographed in such a way that it operates powerfully on different levels. The lighting (Jason Organ) is mostly stark and dark, especially in the first half, although warmer fire tones and white walls are introduced in the ‘lighter’ second half. The cast are dressed identically: the women in simple, deep-grey dresses, the men in dark trousers and white shirts, which instantly creates a sense of uniforms and uniformity. The way they are formed in groups or marching lines, often shot through with staccato bursts of tumbling creates a series of dramatic impressions.
Images of Soviet labour camps, social and political oppression and the urge to escape drift through the mind. Later scenes are reminiscent of a ballroom under bombardment. Tumbling and somersaults often end brutally on the floor, as if the performers are repeatedly caught in explosions and frozen mid-air in an unending maelstrom of conflict and coercion. Aerial work creates a sense of people being forced to perform or trying to escape rather than the usual circus illusions of freedom and flying. There are many scenes of bodies scattered, falling, laid out, gathered. Contortion and acrobalance are used to create a sense of distortion and disturbance and manipulation. The hoop work also distorts and blurs and triggers a fleeting sense of half-remembered paintings or cinema. The final section, the cast stripped down to black trunks for the men and a black swimsuit-like costume for the women, almost sparks thoughts of totalitarian propaganda, like Riefenstahl’s photography and films.
The four musicians are cleverly integrated within the action, not only providing the beautifully dark and disturbing soundtrack but enhancing the dark imagery and sense of place – they perform one lengthy section blindfolded in a row on chairs as the cast march and somersault between and around them with thrilling drama. At times they are moved and manipulated, at others they are the puppet-masters or narrators of the events unfolding around them.
Opus is not attempting a history lesson, but the music and staging and choreography and physical performances by the extraordinarily-beautiful cast meld wonderfully to create a show that is multi-layered and dark and disturbing and moving and powerful and emotional and sexy, which makes it so much more than just the adrenaline-fuelled thrill-ride of the acrobatic skills on display. Opus works on physical, cerebral and emotional levels. You gasp at the beauty and physicality even as you are unsettled and reminded of the sinister human events, which is a pretty remarkable achievement. And ultimately the triumph of the human spirit flickers and grows.
Runs until 9 May