S seems to me to be about ballet dancers in hell. We usually associate Circa, one of Australia’s greatest circus ensembles, with poised movement, joy and enthusiasm, and a sense of the joyful play of life. Incredible physical skills, yes, but fluid and graceful and seemingly effortless.
Not here, though. This is dark and painful circus, using very few props, and only the performers’ bodies to do all the hard work and act as supports for each other. It’s grim, quite frightening in places, and the performers don’t try to disguise their trembling muscles and tense faces. It’s like a battlefield, and these men and women are the gladiators of our time.
No fixed smiles here, no shrugging off of difficult movements as if they were effortless, but almost a sense of fear of what they are doing, a sense of being punished. Certainly their bodies are being punished, forced into grotesque postures that are often suggestive of contortionists. They hurl each other recklessly around the stage, leaving us gasping in fear, aware that what they are doing is unnatural and dangerous, and when we gasp at the end of a sequence, it’s often as much with relief as with admiration.
Make no mistake, this is circus/acrobatics taken to the very edge. And although it mightn’t be as graceful as those little girls from mittel-Europe we saw during the London Olympics, it’s far edgier and more challenging. These are grown men and women, with bodies not as flexible as those of the pre-pubescents, and they’re taking risks all the time. The extreme example of this was when one of the male performers was stripped to the waist and wired, so that every movement was amplified and we could hear what was happening, especially when one of the female performers kept striking him and throwing herself against his body. A microphone was put in his mouth and we heard, as we have never heard before, the painful sounds that he was uttering, sounds that most acrobats also utter in extremis.
And yet the lyrical stuff was there too, in the twirling silk ropes and especially the glittering hula hoops, so much better than any of us managed at school, and we saw the full wonder of this company who can, it seems, do anything at all with their bodies.
Jason Organ’s dark lighting and Libby McDonnell’s stark minimalist costumes helped create the illusion of hell for me, and although I was blown away, as usual, by the sheer skill of Yaron Lifschitz’s choreography, I was left troubled by the dark subtext of his creation.
This is not circus for entertainment, as Cirque du Soleil’s Ovo was, but circus to awaken you to the grim realities of life, and it’s certainly not for very young children. I don’t think even the bolshiest teenager would want to try any of this at home, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t, either, because this is circus for experts only.
And for a strong-minded audience, too.