Courtesy of the Celebrity Series, I will never again hear the tender Andante from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5 without envisioning a svelte acrobat, suspended from a dark proscenium arch, twisting and turning between two black nylon sashes, rapt in the self-absorbed ecstasy of an unfolding chrysalis. Performer Billie Wilson-Coffey offered just one of many compelling, lingering images that Circa, Australia’s ‘new circus’ troupe, projected at Shubert Theater on Friday’s opening of “Opus”, a deep, rich collaboration with Quatuor Debussy in three quartets (and an early Adagio) of Shostakovich.
Circa—founded in 2004, it’s neither your grandfather’s Ringling Brothers’ Circus nor your kids’ Cirque du Soleil—focuses on pairing fresh acrobatic repertoire with lighting, costume, and original music to convey aesthetics over entertainment, character over caricature. Extreme ballet here meets in a mind-meld with stunning string artistry to achieve powerful narrative discourse. “A company,” opines artistic director Yaron Lifschitz,” is in some ways an impossible dream: an attempt to hold back entropy long enough to continue the noble pursuit of truth and beauty.”
Drawn initially to the quartets of Shostakovich (1906–1975), Lifschitz crafted his acrobatic choreography for “Opus” in a collaborative venture with Quatuor Debussy of Lyon, France, who recorded the complete 15 quartets on Arion. First violinist Christophe Collette affirmed that “we play the music exactly as if in concert” and that the acrobatic routines fold dramatically amid the music’s exposition. (Circa repertoire includes choreographing Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno, Bach’s Brandenberg concerti, contemporary choral works, Lully, Rameau, hip-hop.) Trust and intimacy between acrobats (no nets) and musicians (sometimes blindfolded, always witnesses to the fray) were watchwords in this uniquely kinetic experience. Gimmickry was never my thought: this is fresh art fusion.
Circa’s 14 multi-skilled circus artists fuse leaping rolls, cartwheels, body-stacking, contortionism in swirling drama that elicits from the scores vividly expressive and extroverted content heretofore unimaginable. The acrobats defy gravity with dangerous hand-to-hand stunts; some briefly include specialties like hula-hoop. Show-stopper: a woman walks on the heads of three male colleagues, then drops into a full split with her feet on the heads of two men.
The quartet played Shostakovich for 85 minutes with brief pauses: Adagio (Elegy) for Strings, String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122 (1966), String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110 (1960), String Quartet No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 92 (1952). It was refreshing to hear knotty, introvert, ‘difficult’ Shostakovich quartets reimagined as frames for kinetic visual drama.
My notes fail to capture the ethereal whimsy [and loss at death of violinist friend] of Quartet No. 11’s seven sketches; Circa’s movements and routines are usually asynchronous with the music. We begin as sere prone figures arise; leaping pairs dart; a mime with four hands engages in shadow play; two women, tumbling, flip each other to a dizzy viola ostinato; knotted bodies pull apart, tugged by low cello and viola; men form a mountain and lift a woman to twist along a thick rope as all watch; two women engage with hula hoops in the delicate pizzicato arcs.
Quartet No. 8: [dedicated to the victims of fascism and war]. A man runs furiously in place as a gray shroud drops, revealing 10 standing on their heads for the somber Largo I. Three women form a totem, with a shadow screen. Allegro molto II: blindfolded quartet as all 14 march up and down to frenzied klezmer dance. Allegretto III: in dizzying waltz, pairs yank each other’s mouths and flip; troupe crawls as a large arthropod; rough-and-tumble line-up cuts forward, crossways; duos of “catch-me-I’m-falling” inspire trust. Largo IV: Quartet plays shattering tutti blindfolded: subject to the inquisition? Blinded witnesses? Crushed by war, pain, solitude? Man agonizingly carries off one, two, three bodies. Largo V: final gestalt – all 18 face the audience as the music fades (morendo).
Quartet No. 5: [guardedly romantic, sweet and upbeat, in the throes of new love] Allegro non troppo I: Quartet seated in rear as observer/participants. Bright lights on troupe totems. Black bathing suits and lively gestures speak of freedom, lightness of being. Swinging, leaping, cartwheels. Blonde with eagle tat under armpit undergoes elaborate trials, tosses, flips, gauntlets —genial Rite of Spring? Andante II: see opening image; troupe tries slow, intense exploratory moves on each other. Walking and leaping. Moderato III: Woman climbs staircase of bodies. Playful catch-alls with hoops, standing on heads. Final powerful image: hoop of four women and two men.
Watch a short trailer of the performances here, showing acrobatic highlights paired willy-nilly with Quartet No. 8’s Allegro molto.
The final performance comes at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon.