Come One, Come All...

Circus has evolved in recent times to encompass some of the best aspects of dance, theater, and live music. Since the “nouveau cirque” movement of the 1970s, many troupes have left behind the animals, spandex, and canvas tents for a more imaginative, concert-hall version of the form. Beyond the behemoth Cirque Du Soleil, there are signs of other successful companies stretching the genre in different directions: The Canadian groups Cirque Éloize and 7 Fingers of the Hand have brought a distinct thematic, explosive style to their productions, and artists like James and Aurélia Thierrée (grandchildren of Charlie Chaplin) have drawn on mime, puppetry, and magic for their modern vaudeville creations.

Lewie West flies through the air during Circa’s show at the NYU Skirball Center.

Circa, the Brisbane-based performance troupe, which presented its eponymous American debut last month at NYU’s Skirball Center, is an example of a particularly engaging, stripped-down version of contemporary circus. The show’s press materials touted its blending of circus and dance and, given my personal practice in both, I was eager to see which category it fell into. After 90 minutes of heart-pounding tumbling, falling, and flying by its seven plucky performers, I wanted to call Circa a circus show. But because of its simple aesthetic (no set design or bulky apparatus acts), the evening took on a more intimate feel, nothing like the previous circus shows I’d seen. The small nature of the Skirball theater drew my attention immediately to the physical effort exerted by each performer and I was able to see their moments of spontaneous communication with one another. As opposed to other circus shows in which the performers execute their acts with cold, almost robotic precision, the occasional moments of trembling or stumbling in Circa were some of the evening’s most inspiring and endearing, making these virtuosic actions feel human and accessible.

The show began with a frantic diving and falling ensemble section that looked like it could have been right out of a Pilobolus piece. However, the movement vocabulary was drawn from circus training, rather than dance. The performers weaved seamlessly among each other with flips and rolls, deftly catching each other as they stacked bodies on shoulders and launched each other through the air. While ballet dancers often try to make difficult movements appear effortless, Circa’s performers proudly embraced their moments of risk and difficulty, which engaged the audience in an immediate and visceral way: While it’s possible to physically approximate a plié or tendu, there’s certainly no way to fake a headstand.

After the opening group piece, each performer’s personality emerged through a series of playful solos and duets. While the individual focus on each performer was interesting, these shorter acts were less engaging and energetic than the carefully choreographed chaos of the opening and closing ensemble pieces. Like the “action engineers” of Brooklyn’s own STREB company, Circa’s men and women perform similar physical tasks. There was something incredibly refreshing about the genuine level of trust between performers, something that often gets lost in dance partnering. There’s sometimes a tendency among dancers to not completely give one’s weight to a partner, in order to mitigate the risk of falling or to make a movement appear lighter and easier. In Circa, however, the willingness to completely give weight was obvious and invigorating.

While there were a few short vignettes in Circa (one painful-looking duet featured a woman in stilettos balancing on top of a man’s exposed back), the show never really developed specific characters or traveled far into the realm of theater. A few of the pop music selections fell flat and gave the evening an unnecessary campy feel. I saw the performers as engaging enough on their own without needing the artificially added musical drama. The company’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, explained after the show that Circa had, in the past, collaborated with live musicians. It made me wonder if those versions of the show had felt more present and sonically alive, as opposed to the coldness of the automatic CD playlist and carefully chosen pop tunes. Still, the playful enthusiasm and silliness of the performers ensured that the evening never felt too self-conscious, avoiding the dreaded stuffiness that often creeps into performing art settings.

After seeing Circa, I can’t help but think that the broadening of the circus art form is a good thing for both audiences and performers alike. The resulting cross-pollination between circus artists, dancers, musicians, and actors reveals areas ripe for exploration. The challenge is in the opportunity: to draw on the most interesting parts of each discipline. 

Contributor

Jeremy Finch

JEREMY FINCH is a dancer and artist living in Brooklyn. You can follow his projects at www.jeremyfinch.blogspot.com.

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