It’s hard to write about spectacle. I’m tempted to say it’s like dancing about architecture. But maybe that’s naïve. I know plenty of contemporary dancers that could meaningfully articulate a cityscape in a handful of gestures. But how do you describe the sensation of watching someone turn what looks like a near miss into a feat of pure physical grace?
Great contemporary circus has me reaching for similes, and superlatives. It makes your heart jump into your mouth, your pulse race, cheeks flush, and like a captivated child at a fairground you can’t drag your eyes away from the stage. Even when your pen runs out and you’re meant to be taking notes.
Circa does that kind of contemporary circus. One moment they appear to defy gravity, biology, and common sense, and at the next is a delicately poised, piece of physical poetry.
Their latest production, Peep Show, is a lot like a piece of contemporary dance. For one, it is fully choreographed.
Lots of circus shows have a structure similar to a musical. There’s a kind of overture at the beginning, followed by a number of acts which are broken up by short scenes or skits. Individual performances might have been rehearsed individually, and then strung together by a theme, interspersed with short transitions, or masked by the clown.
Circa don’t do that. Their structure functions like opera. In that it is entirely sung, or rather danced, through. Choreographed from start to finish so that you don’t know where the next act is coming from, as the show morphs from one moment to the next.
Its not a show that is bound by a story, or character either. It might have a glittery silver curtain but its not set in a strip club. The theme of looking, and being seen is part of it, but the expression of the performers is not limited by it.
The main event is the physical eloquence of the performers. Hula hoops, juggling balls, trapeze, and rope all make brief cameos but its not about them. They’re just the means of expression.
The focus is on seven bodies contorting together, sometimes in rhythm, sometimes off beat, always elegantly describing a series of compelling movements, which are constantly extending the physical narrative.
There’s lots of lifting in this performance too. Lots of hauling a partner up on to shoulders, taking one another by the feet as easily as if they were shaking them by the hand. Once they’re up there, and often with another pair in the same position beside them, the acrobat on shoulders will lean towards the floor like Michael Jackson in Smooth Criminal. They lean just long enough for you to think that their head might connect with the floor. Then at the last minute they swoop like a rollercoaster hitting the bend of a loop the loop, and screw their body into a forward roll, arriving at the edge of the stage, on two feet, as if nothing had happened.
The sense of exhilaration they create is hard to describe. Its addictive, and Circa’s sense of when to let you have it is finely tuned. Plus it all happens so fast that by the time the curtain falls you wonder if you had just imagined the whole thing. I look down at my pad, and there’s nothing written on the page. My pen had run out, but then again, there wasn’t a moment to make any notes anyway.
Circa’s Peepshow is on until 18 August 2018 at Underbelly on the Southbank. Click here for more details.