Review: Opus, Barbican Centre
Published in The Telegraph, 19.02.2014
Circus as high art? Surely not. It’s sawdust and sequins; car horns and custard pies. Musically, you expect drum rolls and screamer marches. Not Shostakovich string quartets.
That’s right. Yaron Lifschitz’s legendary Australian perfomance troupe, Circa, has joined up with the Debussy String Quartet to set acrobatics to Shostakovich and, in the process, they’ve refined away all the circus’s Big Top crudities. Opus is cut-glass, caviar circus. It’s black tie and ballgown circus. And it’s an astonishing thing to watch: graceful, bombastic. Profound.
Even the simple collision of art forms is thought-provoking. Why is one high and the other low? What makes a musician virtuosic and a circus performer freakish?
Here acrobatics looks as disciplined as ballet: all arched feet and hyperextension. Circus becomes poised and noble. Not unruly. Not cocksure.
Violinists start to seem sexy and fierce. Why does no one ever run away to join a string quartet, I wonder? Lifshitz does more than set circus to Shostakovich. That would make the music seem an arbitrary accompaniment. Rather, he interprets it as any balletmaster or opera director would. He lets you visualise the music. He makes you understand its structure. He quotes other artists – Pina Bausch and Robert Wilson – just as Shostakovich does.
Mostly, though, he matches the music’s internal tensions – airy, scratchy violins against leaden, anchored cellos – through choreography that’s fascinated by gravity. Bodies are flung around weightlessly: they spring and snap, fall and fly. Hula hoops hang in the air. Elsewhere, strong men haul one another into position.
They form human pillars, stacked three bodies high. The foundation men shake with the strain. Men lug women. Women lug men. The performers make monuments of one another, turning into great counterbalanced structures. One man scoops up three others and staggers offstage.
The title is key. Opus means work, and that’s exactly what you see onstage. Four musicians, all in white-collar shirts, play their music – a work of art – amid the manual labour of these heavy lifters.
It’s all about class. You see a populace, much like an opera chorus. They look like slaves or gladiators. They look ready to revolt.
There’s leisure too: playful sections that, with the performers in swimwear, call to mind sunny days at public lidos. A woman becomes a skipping rope. Bodies somersault in sync. Six men seem to dive through the exact same point in space at the exact same moment in time. You gasp, gasp and gasp again.
OK, blink and it can look like gymnastics, but then the music sweeps you up and away until the spectacle seems extraordinary. It’s like extreme ballet. You get the astonishment of great circus with the sense of transcendence more familiar in “higher” forms. I could go on, but you should probably just get on and book.