Us­ing on-stage mu­si­cians, Aus­tralia’s Circa finds new in­spi­ra­tion in Dmitri Shostakovich for the show called Opus

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY TONY MONTAGUE

Fus­ing ac­ro­bat­ics and mu­sic by Dmitri Shostakovich, Aus­tralia’s Circa com­pany con­tin­ues to push the bounds of its art form.

Yaron Lif­s­chitz is stuck in traf­fic on the high­way between Bris­bane and Aus­tralia’s Gold Coast, where the Com­mon­wealth Games have just wrapped up. As cre­ative di­rec­tor of the con­cur­rent arts-and-cul­ture fes­ti­val, he’s headed for what he calls a “de­brief­ing” meet with his team of per­form­ers, but he’s happy to change hats and, as artis­tic di­rec­tor of new-cir­cus com­pany Circa, talk about a pro­ject close to his heart—the ground­break­ing pro­duc­tion Opus.

Made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with France’s De­bussy String Quar­tet, Opus takes the in­te­gra­tion of cir­cus arts and mu­sic to dizzy­ing new heights, with an 18-mem­ber en­sem­ble—14 mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary per­form­ers and the four mu­si­cians, who sit on-stage in the mid­dle of the ac­tion play­ing string quar­tets by Rus­sian com­poser Dmitri Shostakovich.

“I’d been work­ing with clas­si­cal mu­sic in var­i­ous forms for a long time. It’s one of my great pas­sions, and be­ing able to em­body it and to bring it to new au­di­ences through its com­bi­na­tion with our cir­cus is some­thing I love to do,” says Lif­s­chitz. “Do­minique Delorme, who’s the di­rec­tor of the fes­ti­val Les Nuits de Fourvière in Lyon, wanted to com­mis­sion a pro­ject, and while we were in dis­cus­sions their pro­gram­mer told me, ‘When I see your shows I hear the mu­sic of Shostakovich.’ And I said, ‘That’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing, be­cause it’s mu­sic that’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to me—although I’ve never used it in a show be­cause it’s so pre­cious.’

“He said that Lyon had the only French quar­tet to have recorded the en­tire Shostakovich cy­cle,” he con­tin­ues. “So I met the mu­si­cians and we got on very well, and de­cided we were go­ing to do a pro­gram that would in­clude one Shostakovich quar­tet. Then Shostakovich just sort of took over, and the whole pro­gram be­came his mu­sic—which has been an ab­so­lute bless­ing to work with.”

There were com­pelling rea­sons why Shostakovich’s mid-20th-century quar­tets at­tracted Lif­s­chitz as one of the lead­ing di­rec­tors of new cir­cus—the mul­ti­fac­eted, non­tra­di­tional form that has de­vel­oped in re­cent decades. “Shostakovich has a very high de­gree of for­mal rigour and his quar­tet com­po­si­tions are exquisitely and densely struc­tured. At the same time, he’s not afraid to be un­abashedly cin­e­matic, emo­tion­ally schmaltzy, talk­ing di­rectly to the heart. Those two things—for­mal dis­ci­pline and the main­lin­ing of emo­tion—work very well for us as a phys­i­cal per­for­mance com­pany. And it’s just great mu­sic.”

Circa, founded in 1987, has pre­vi­ously in­cluded on-stage mu­si­cians in pro­duc­tions, but never as in­ti­mately in­volved in the pro­ject as the De­bussy String Quar­tet. “We’ve had enough time to work with them in sub­tle and so­phis­ti­cated ways. They were amaz­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors—i mean, they didn’t laugh at me when I asked if they’d be able to learn the whole of the quar­tets by heart, or when I asked if they’d be able to do it in blind­fold. They were in­cred­i­bly ad­ven­tur­ous and would hap­pily do a lot more things than they cur­rently do on-stage.”

Lif­s­chitz sees Circa’s tight chore­og­ra­phy as the cre­ation of the en­sem­ble, which for Opus in­cluded the four mu­si­cians. “We got them to talk to us about what was hap­pen­ing mu­si­cally, be­cause when you have mu­sic in this form—com­plete pieces, played right through—it gives you a lot of your struc­ture. In one way, it makes life quite easy be­cause you know why you’re do­ing things; on the other hand, you have to pick [the mu­sic] re­ally well—for a long time we were work­ing with a dif­fer­ent Shostakovich quar­tet, but it be­came ev­i­dent af­ter a few weeks that it wasn’t go­ing to work as the clos­ing piece. It also gives you a great kind of free­dom, be­cause you know you have, say, a six-minute de­vel­op­ment sec­tion to ap­ply an idea to. It’s very rich.”

Circa’s hall­mark is in­cred­i­bly tight, fast, and flu­ent en­sem­ble work that blends ac­ro­bat­ics, dance, and phys­i­cal theatre. In Opus most of the ac­tion is on the floor and of­ten hap­pens si­mul­ta­ne­ously at the front and back of the stage. Just a few props are used—hoops, ropes, chairs, two fixed trapezes, aerial straps— as the em­pha­sis is on the hu­man body and bod­ies. While Lif­s­chitz, as usual, avoids nar­ra­tive, there are clear al­lu­sions in Opus to time, place, and so­ci­ety. The cir­cus chore­og­ra­phy and the cos­tumes, like the mu­sic, evoke Rus­sian life in the tu­mul­tuous 1930s and ’40s.

“What I was re­ally in­ter­ested in was this idea of the pub­lic ver­sus the pri­vate. Shostakovich lived through th­ese ter­ri­ble times of Stal­in­ism. Un­like his sym­phonic works, which were ma­jor pub­lic ut­ter­ances and got him pe­ri­od­i­cally into trou­ble, the quar­tets were where he could let his heart speak, be­cause you just needed four peo­ple in an up­stairs room of the Moscow Con­ser­va­toire to play them, rather than the huge, state-sub­si­dized or­ches­tral ap­pa­ra­tus. They be­come th­ese in­ti­mate state­ments, but of course highly in­flu­enced by the ex­pe­ri­ence of the political en­vi­ron­ment.”

Ten­sions between the in­di­vid­ual and the group, the pub­lic and the pri­vate, run through Shostakovich’s quar­tets, and through the cir­cus fab­ric of Opus. “It’s not ex­plicit, but I think you get a sense of the strong emo­tional pulls on in­di­vid­u­als in dif­fer­ent ways. I want my shows to cre­ate an emo­tion that doesn’t yet have a name. That’s the ul­ti­mate high point. I’m not say­ing we al­ways get there. It comes from a place of mean­ing. I’m not con­cerned with the au­di­ence lin­early un­der­stand­ing the the­mat­ics, but we can cre­ate a strong, vis­ceral emo­tional re­sponse, and ideally that mix­ture of fear and hope feels like some­thing new. When that hap­pens, it’s re­ally pow­er­ful. Our work asks au­di­ences to feel—and I think that’s the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence things, pre-words or be­sides words. I love be­ing in a big theatre with Opus, and more than 2,000 peo­ple—many of whom have never heard him be­fore—are watch­ing a Shostakovich string quar­tet, lis­ten­ing in rapt si­lence. That’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity and priv­i­lege.”

Circa per­forms Opus with the De­bussy String Quar­tet at the Chan Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts on Satur­day (April 28).

Opus takes the in­te­gra­tion of cir­cus arts and mu­sic to dizzy­ing new heights, dis­play­ing Circa’s fast and flu­ent en­sem­ble work. Justin Ni­cholas photo.

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