BWW Review: Circa Celebrates Stripped-Down Fragility and Strength In HUMANS At BAM's Next Wave Festival
On the bare stage of BAM's vast Howard Gilman Opera House, clad in attire befitting a Calvin Klein advertisement, the acrobats of the world-renowned Australian Contemporary Circus company -- Circa -- demonstrated breathtaking acts of enormous strength and delicate, alternatingly humorous and heartbreaking vulnerability. Humans is a tribute to our shared nature as people: we can be weak, limited and fragile, but we can also showcase incredible feats of bravery, trust and fortitude -- especially when working together.
The stripped-down rawness of the staging (created by Circa's Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble) and costuming (by Libby McDonnell) enhanced only by the lush yet stark lighting design from Jason Organ, left the performers exposed and wide open -- body and soul -- to the audience's gaze.
This bare-bones minimalism is a signature style not only for Circa but for Contemporary Circus as a genre. Not unlike Modern and Contemporary Dance, Contemporary Circus was born out of the desire to utilize the exceptional physical vocabulary of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and other specialty-skilled performers, modernize them and update the expressions bodily, emotionally and visually and transform both audience and critical perception of what circus is and can be. Contemporary Circus seeks to elevate the circus arts to the realm of high art rather than the more brash, low-brow forms entertainment of the outdated circuses of yesteryear.
After some time, Contemporary Circus has become a respected form of high art, able to stand (or hand-balance or soar above on aerial silks) alongside Opera, Theatre and Dance at prestigious venues and important festivals -- such as BAM's Next Wave Festival -- largely thanks to visionary companies such as Crica and the Swedish company Cirkus Cirkor, a BAM favorite, who will be performing Philip Glass' legendary Satyagraha with Folkoperan as part of Next Wave later this month.
However -- also akin to some Modern and Contemporary Dance -- at times less is less, and sometimes the approach can feel a bit incomplete as a show worthy of an opera house. This is not the case with Humans. Never has the laid-bare look key to Contemporary Circus' aesthetic better served a show's purpose and poignancy of its intention.
The human condition is explored in all of its foibles through acts of superhuman ability. As Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz noted: "We humans are a fairly weak, unimpressive species," pointing out the fact that most other animals' physical prowess vastly surpass anything we could even dream of. However, it is precisely because of these limitations that make the physical feats of these performers so extraordinary and engrossing. We can see limitless potential in their overcoming what seems to be impossible. Their strength fortifies our own power and possibilities. "In Humans, I have asked our ensemble of artists: what does it mean to be human? How can you express the very essence of this experience with your body, with the group and with the audience? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?" The exploration and discovery process the ensemble embarked on as a result of this investigation is what created Humans and makes the work so utterly compelling and remarkable.
While I'd venture to bet that the majority of the attendees could not perform the physical acts of the Circa ensemble, I'm quite certain that everyone could relate to the truths displayed on stage. There was, at times, a pervasive sadness further enhanced by high-pitched wails of a mournful violin or melancholic piano music, but then it would switch into a humorous, sexy and playful enactment of a couple's connection to the pleading of a bluesy vocalist. Humans portrays the whole gamut of the human experience from joys to sorrows and most especially how we interact with and affect each other.
The performers hardly relied on any props and Humans utilizes mostly ground acrobatic skills for their expressions. There were only a few notable instances where aerial apparatuses were used (straps and three horizontal pole swings a bit evocative of what may be found in a birdcage) and the ensemble was dependent nearly entirely on bodies -- their own and those of their fellow company members. The solo pieces were interesting -- especially the one where the extremely flexible and absolutely charming Kimberly O'Brien kept collapsing into contorted positions and expressed mental anguish and internal frustration outwardly through the body -- but the most astounding moments were in groups or pairings. One such pair that was devastatingly beautiful in both its tenderness and sadness was when the female performer was used like a rag doll or puppet guided by her male partner. The piece was rich with a wealth of metaphors which could be interpreted in numerous ways depending on the viewer, but the mixture of relying on another for total support and having to support another entirely was deeply moving.
"Support" is certainly an appropriate word, "trust" is another, as the company piled themselves upon each other like the foundational beams of a skyscraper or a Jenga stack. At one astonishing moment, a cluster of five performers was held up by only three as their foundation. No nets, nothing between you and the floor far below but your teammate and a massive amount of trust and skill.
The Circa ensemble tumbled and somersaulted with the grace of a diver or dolphin; leaped with the force of a cat; contorted their bodies like the rubber-band spin of a snake; balanced like sure-footed mountain goats in stacks upon each other hovering in impossible positions sometimes with one's full body weight sustained only by one hand; and flung across the stage at one another like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. We may be, as Lifschitz commented, "a fairly weak, unimpressive species," but this particularly exceptional collective of humans shows just how far we -- and the genre of Contemporary Circus as a true art form of the highest expression -- have evolved.
The Circa Ensemble in Humans. Photo by Max Gordon.
The Circa Ensemble in Humans. Photo by Max Gordon.
Cecilia Martin in Circa's Humans. Photo by Max Gordon.