Cirque de la Lune

The Circus

When most people think of the circus, one tends to think of clowns and strongmen - these performers are both, but first and foremost they are highly-trained acrobats.

A ripped young man runs, trips, and falls in an ungainly flop into a circle of light. He recovers himself, manipulates body parts into a position where he can rise, then runs and falls again.

Director Yaron Lifschitz marshals his ensemble into a steady stream of acro-dancing combinations, tumbling and lifting, stretching and moulding their bodies with a delicate air that belies the difficulty of what they are actually doing. This is certainly ‘stripped back circus’, with spectacle reduced to what the bodies provide, and colour reduced to the shifts in tone between the individual characteristics of the performers.

There is danger enough, with bodies warped and contorted, flung and tossed. Comic moments are slow to emerge, but they eventually do, and gradually the performers reveal more of their unique take on the skills on view.

There is a high degree of experimentation in the work, with unusual, even creepy ways of using someone else’s body as a stress test. Brittannie Portelli walking all over Nathan Boyle while wearing stilettos is certainly dangerous, requiring courage and skill from both performers, but the piece lacks a framing context to make it more than just an experiment in where to place the heels.

Lewis West and Emma McGovern are not sadomasochists; they are acrobats. On stage with Brisbane-based circus group Circa, McGovern dons a pair of blood-red stilettos and walks over West’s bare flesh. By the end of the act, his skin is covered in welts.

All circus performers endure pain but, unlike most, the acrobats of Circa never try to make their stunts appear effortless. Their tumbles, leaps and balancing acts are dangerous and they want the audience to know it. ‘‘An acrobat who doesn’t wake up sore is probably dead,’’ says the director of Circa, Yaron Lifschitz.

Shock and awe. Lewis West is pierced with stilettos.

Stylistically influenced by neo-burlesque, its performers have appeared in variations on the theme of lingerie rather than leotards, engaged their acrobatics as a form of playful public flirtation, and explored the socio-sexual symbolism of objects – most famously, a pair of red high-heeled shoes – even as they tumbled and turned.

Physical power over another is a recurring theme. A woman is tossed in the air like a thing of balsa wood or spun like a skipping rope. In one of the show’s most wince-inducing and unexpected moments, a female performer emerges wearing cherry red spike heels and proceeds to walk across a male performer’s torso.

The audience gasp one moment at an incredible physical feat, then is moved the next at one of the touching sequences. The performance has its own language and cohesive narrative that is direct and powerful.

There are also set pieces that seemed both epic and intimate. The smooth flow between diverse acts (from tumbling or balancing acts to a woman walking all over a man with her red high heels) proves that circus can evolve in really interesting ways.

The next piece is a real jaw-dropper, with a female performer taking charge with aggression and dominance, walks in heels across a male performer, along to a female-led cover of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’. The audience try not to watch, but can’t look away.

She then donned a pair of killer heels and walked across one bloke’s back, him writhing underneath – excruciating to watch, yet strangely alluring.

A woman in red heeled shoes walks over the body of her partner, leaving red inflamed marks where she treads.

The emotive quality of these scenes is numinous and difficult to describe, but different I think from the subtler kind of ambiguity and slipperiness that exists elsewhere in C!rca’s doubles work. The red heels sequence takes the tension and focus of fakir art and complicates it with sexual powerplay (especially sharp as there’s a noticeable age difference between the older woman and the very young, Adonis-like man).

And always, there was a sense of connection between the performers.

Relationships of all sorts played out onstage, including one particularly powerful duet featuring Emma McGovern in blood-red high heels and abs-of-steel partner Lewis West. Let’s just say there was much sado-masochistic pressing of stiletto heels into West’s bare chest, bare back, bare shoulders. Ouch.

London’s Guardian described Circa as “astonishingly moving, its story of human co-operation and frailty emerging through an acro-ballet”, and referenced the much-commented-on sequence in which a woman in blood-red stilettos walks over a man’s body.

It’s breathtaking, beautiful and sexy: there is a remarkable sequence in which a woman in red stilettos walks all over a man’s body that says a great deal about sexual politics and even more about sadomasochism.

Tendons, muscles and parts of the psyche are put to the test at Circa.

Circa is a Brisbane-based group of seven (four men and three girls) specialising in what can best be described as acrobatic dance. The programme note explains that their work “defies description”, which is pretty well true. It is a mixture of theatre, tumbling, acrobatics and modern dance performed on a bare stage to an edgy musical score with changes of lighting to reflect the mood.

The very fit-looking young cast perform barefoot in leotards (the girls) and long trousers (the men) and take us through 80 continuous minutes of spectacular movements – sometimes a team performance sometimes a solo. Their strength and agility enabled them to perform turns that left the capacity audience applauding wildly.

A few props were employed – a trapeze, hoops, a rope which descended from the flies and, perhaps most dramatically of all, a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes which, after donning, one of the girls proceeded to climb all over one of the men in a sequence of movements that left the audience gasping in concern for the chap who seemed to be on course for a serious puncturing. Of course he emerged unscathed.

One cast member (in this case Lewis West) had Emma McGovern walk all over his body in sparkly red high heels, which as we learnt in the post-show intimate Q & A, was his responsibility as one of the newest ensemble members. We also heard how there were no tricks in this act, just pure stiletto and flesh, to which the Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz’s “direction” to the stiletto-ee is “Suck it up princess” – Hello Australia and your “drink a cup of cement” encouragement style. I’d love to see more of Lifschitz’s work.

Sets and costumes are simple with the use of beautiful lighting and silhouettes, tissue and a pair of red heels that provide the point of metaphor for the themes of couples and love; play and trust.

There is no literal plot thus suspense but it is a show where meaning is rather threaded through emotionally charged images. The performers impress on us the limitless ways in which we can use our bodies but mostly don’t.

Judging by the gasps, laughs, exclamations and finally, an immediate standing ovation, generated by the sold out crowd last Saturday at the Freddie Wood Theatre at UBC, you should kick yourself for not getting tickets to Circa.

Part of the PuSh Festival, which carries on with more fabulous programming till February 6, Circa, conceived, designed and directed by Yaron Lifschitz, combined various circus skills with contemporary dance and clowning to create a non verbal pot pourri of edgy acts that flowed together seamlessly. Content pulled from various shows comprised the 80 minute show so no obvious theme shone except the remarkable capabilities of the human body and the ingenuity of their minds.

The Brisbane, Australia troupe included Freyja Edney, the remarkably strong woman who not only did contortions but balanced a not exactly small man standing on her head; Emma McGovern, who performed my personal favourite act of the night; strong man Scott Grove; Jessie Scott, who seemed more comfortable on his head than on his feet; and hunky uber-athlete Lewis West. The intimacy of the Freddie Wood created a special bond in that we could see the sweat, muscles and tats up close.

Having travelled to 18 countries across five continents, their acts are well rehearsed without being slick. Good thing as a half centimeter off on some of these tricks and paramedics would be called. It’s that pedal to the metal risk taking that makes Circa so thrilling.

Starting with the performers slamming themselves down on the ground on body parts that typically don’t like being slammed, the two women showed bare legs and upper bodies while the men were shirtless. Notable because their muscle definition reminded those of us with anatomical backgrounds or those of us who went to see Bodyworks at the Science Centre, how magnificent the human body really is. What those bodies were capable of was truly inspiring.

Creating Pilobolus-like human structures, using bodies as skipping ropes and then letting go, or contorting yourself around while balancing on body parts that aren’t made to hold people were just some of the fast paced physical ideas that made up the group pieces.

The solos would often take an idea and use the circus skills to create a character. Scott’s play with his small hoop was particularly charming as he fit his lanky frame through a tiny hoop and the audience enjoyed Grove’s movement from spotlight to spotlight, back flipping and then splatting.

Edney’s hooping skills were remarkable: flinging 8 hoops around, ducking her head while circling and doing it all with ease.

McGovern’s aerial rope act or corde lisse was exceptional. The functional movements that propel the aerialist up the rope and work the knots that keep them there were so clean and graceful that they were part of the choreography. So beautiful and controlled, I lost myself in the flowing shapes and the gorgeous exit that seemed almost magical.

One of the last acts suggested a metaphor for male/female relationships that gave the work more depth. Donning stiletto shiny red heels, McGovern walked over West, carefully placed the ball of her foot on large muscle groups letting the sharp point of the stiletto make contact with his skin. Turning him over for more abuse, it was agonizing and fascinating.

Standing there with the rest of the audience clapping at the end, all I was thinking was, “I wonder if they travel with a massage therapist.” I sure hope so.