With acrobatics and live music, Opus takes circus arts to dizzying new heights

The Australian company Circa finds inspiration for its latest show in the work of Shostakovich

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      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.”

      The choreography, costumes, and music in Opus evoke Russian life in the tumultuous 1930s and ’40s.
      Justin Nicholas

      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).