Towards a new theatre vocabulary: Lepage, Cavalia and the legitimacy of aerials

It’s aerial week in Toronto:

  • Robert Lepage’s pair of brief operas (Bluebeard’s Castle / Erwartung) for the Canadian Opera Company open May 6th at the Four Seasons Centre, including moments when you can’t tell which way is up

    Erwartung, directed by Robert Lepage, set & costumes by Michael Levine

  • Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium comes back to Canadian Stage May 1st (last seen here just over a year ago), much of it a test of agility as the set rotates while the protagonist attempts to stay right-side-up

     Wellesley Robertson III in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.


    Wellesley Robertson III in Needles and Opium. Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon.

  • And meanwhile, Cavalia continue their mix of horses, acrobats & aerial display in their current show Odysseo on until at least May 24th (review).

Once upon a time someone wrote a song about someone who “flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young man on the flying…”  You know which song I mean because of course you finished the sentence in your head.

But the word “circus” is limiting. None of these shows is really in a ring (the meaning of the word “circus” after all), even if Odysseo does briefly make horse and rider race around inside the confining circle of the enclosed ring space. The “c” word is dated. Gone are the days of entertainments comprised of traveling performers who can barely make a living. No, shows such as Odysseo—currently playing to rapturous crowds under the big white tent on the waterfront in Toronto –or influential precursors such as Cirque du Soleil demonstrate that there’s a lot of money to be made in daring aerial performances.

I’m less interested in the financial questions than I am in the way this plays out in the larger world. What may have started out as a flavour of the month, a case of keeping up with the Jones’s (or Lepages), shows signs of becoming a normal part of opera and theatre. Sometimes such daring displays are necessary, as in a show such as the Broadway Spiderman where the lead character is required to be a daredevil.

But I know I’m seeing these skills deployed elsewhere, and would list more examples if I could think of them. I recall in the COC Love from Afar we saw floating performers to complement the spiritual element of the story.

(left to right) Acrobats Antoine Marc, Sandrine Mérette and Ted Sikström in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012. Conductor Johannes Debus, original production by Daniele Finzi Pasca, set designer Jean Rabasse, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and lighting designers Daniele Finzi Pasca and Alexis Bowles. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

(left to right) Acrobats Antoine Marc, Sandrine Mérette and Ted Sikström in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012. Conductor Johannes Debus, original production by Daniele Finzi Pasca, set designer Jean Rabasse, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and lighting designers Daniele Finzi Pasca and Alexis Bowles. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

In the COC’s production of Semele, recently revived at Brooklyn Academy of Music, at one point Jane Archibald as the heroine has to fly on a wire.

Jane Archibald in the title role,of Handel’s “Semele” at BAM. Photo: Jack Vartoogian (click image for New York Classical Review).

The current Houston Opera production of Die Walküre running until the weekend, puts their Valkyries in the air using machines.

Houston’s Die Walkure (click for more info)

And lest we forget the baroque side of things, Opera Atelier usually have an airborne god or goddess every season: for instance in last month’s Orpheus and Eurydice.  Everything old is new again?

Lepage’s approach seems to be a big part in the shift, making this part of a new normal. He challenges his singers, expecting them to be aerialists.

  • In Das Rheingold he dangles the Rhinemaidens above the stage for 20 minutes, creating a magical effect.
  • Later in the same opera, Loge the trickster god walks backwards up a wall. And at the end of the opera, the gods enter Valhalla, at least with the help of body doubles climbing at a scary angle.  The substitution is similar to the one Lepage makes with Brunnhilde at the end of Die Walküre
  • Lepage’s next operatic venture –in Quebec and also at the Met– was Ades Tempest, again taking us into the air.

    A scene from Robert Lepage’s production of The Tempest at Festival Opéra de Québec, 2012 © Nicola Vachon 2012 (click for more info)

  • Lepage’s first opera at the Met wasn’t really an opera, but Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust, a work that’s wide open to adventurous mise-en-scène. There’s probably more aerial work in this production than any other. My favourite such moment –among many—is the chorus of soldiers & students, when we’re told of the siege of girls’ hearts. The soldiers climb and then die, dangling from the wires, but fresh waves keep attacking and dying; is this a display of futility or simply normal life as it was lived in the time? As usual Lepage drills down into the literal meaning of the text, almost too literal.

Last night I was reminded of those dangling soldiers, watching Odysseo. I tweeted

They resemble angels until the moment it looks as though they might fall. Mortal angels? I guess not. #Odysseo

There is a moment near the end of their routine when the aerialists dangle in a way to remind us that they could indeed fall, as if to say they are mortal after all, very much like Lepage’s soldiers.  Curiously, the photo that was downloaded to media is titled “Les Anges”, suggesting that the overtones of something spiritual aren’t just in my mind.

Les Anges (Photo credit:  Pascal Ratthé)

Les Anges (Photo credit: Pascal Ratthé)

The influences don’t seem to work in the usual way, as this isn’t Cirque influencing Cavalia –two competing spectacles of acrobatic skill. No. I have to think that it’s Robert Lepage possibly influenced by his Quebecois compatriots, possibly himself influencing them. This part of Odysseo is a very abstract kind of theatre that’s far more ambitious than just “he flies through the air with the greatest of ease”.

Because the days of the old-time circus –the place where animals are abused, where survival is marginal–are over and thank goodness.  At the very least Cavalia is a kind of “Circus 2.0”, humane, artistic, and seeking to be profound.  The animals are treated with dignity, the performances an enactment of love.

Don’t be surprised if aerial performance is a regular part of the expressive vocabulary of theatre.

This entry was posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, Theatre & musicals. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Towards a new theatre vocabulary: Lepage, Cavalia and the legitimacy of aerials

  1. Peter Hobbs says:

    Re: Your first words above:
    My wife and I just attended an Open Rehearsal of Schoenberg’s Erwartung at the Four Seasons Centre, under Robert Lepage’s direction. Fortunately for us, the 7:30 pm rehearsal was paused about 8:10 for some orchestral review. I say “fortunately”, because that provided an opportunity for us to escape the horror. Krisztina Szabo sang wonderfully… the fault wasn’t hers. But the opera itself was agony to have to watch. And the music was Schoenberg at his worst. On the way out, we saw lots of other people also streaming out. We had hoped that Bluebeard’s Castle would be first on the schedule – the order in which it was listed on the program – for we really wanted to hear John Relyea. But we couldn’t take hours more of Schoenberg so we left. Sad, really… but true.

    • barczablog says:

      To each his/her own naturally. I find i’m saying this a lot lately. I find Schoenberg’s score a perfect match for the subject, which is not a happy story, but one of obsession and madness. I suppose it felt long to you subjectively but it’s only half an hour long. When I last saw it, I found that it went by in a flash, the imagery so powerful & rich that i wished it were longer.

  2. craigswalker says:

    I’d bookmarked this essay to read later, and as I’m seeing Erwartung/Bluebeard tonight (and Figaro tomorrow), today was the day. I saw Erwartung back when this production was first done, in the 90s, and I agree with you completely about the music, Leslie: it perfectly suits the story dramatically, whereas anything prettier would make nonsense of the mental anguish being explored.

    But my other thought has to do with the way that Robert Lepage uses aerial staging. I got a close up insight into this when I played a witch in Lepage’s 1992 Macbeth. We made our first entrance unfurling and then dangling upside down from above the proscenium. We accomplished this by hanging with our knees hooked over a lighting pipe. The effect for me was literally vertiginous (particularly during one protracted tech rehearsal when we were trapped up there after the lighting had blown a circuit, an experience that left me with acrophobia for some years afterwards, whereas I had been recklessly fearless of heights before that); but, more importantly, it had some of that effect on the audience too. The literal disorientation becomes a metaphor for the existential disorientation. Which leads me to his use of the technique in Das Rhinegold. When I saw the three maidens hanging there, it immediately brought back our three witches. I suspect that, for Lepage, his suspended Rhine Maidens are related to the suspended dei ex machina of baroque opera only insofar as both are paranormal. But whereas the baroque gods usually represent authority & joy, what is perhaps more interesting to Lepage is the way in which the suspended state represents the “unheimlich,” whether that is a psychotic dislocation from the self, as in Erwartung; or an alienation from one’s own desires, as with Alberich, who lusts after but cannot apprehend the maidens; or a projection of the dark side of the psyche, as the witches arguably are for Macbeth.

    • barczablog says:

      Craig! so good to hear from you. I had been so envious of those who got to work with Lepage at the Drama Centre on that MacBeth as i only arrived for my MA a year later.

      Are you seeing (or did you see) Needles & Opium? It’s a very useful addition to the conversation for several reasons. I was reminded of the way anyone recovering from a substance or coping with disability must live one day at a time, the set like a horrific series of challenges; those who are sober / healthy / competent take their balance for granted, whereas those of us who have faced some kind of struggle see this set as a perfect metaphor, one that echoes or even expands the sorts of things you describe both in the hanging witches & in the Rhine Maidens. I find even now, a good 18 months later, i am still unpacking visceral insights, as i just did now reading your words and seeing further depths to these pieces. Also, see the Faust video if you can. I wish it would be revived but it doesn’t seem to be likely. I wonder if the COC would try it here, where Lepage is literally golden? It’s a huge vehicle for orchestra & chorus (two of the COC’s strengths… Are you listening Alexander Neef?) requiring just three fabulous singers, one of whom (from the Met production) is going to be singing in your Bluebeard, namely John Relyea.

      For me one of the big issues, alas, concerns the resistance of the performers. No i’m not saying that singers are bad for resisting; i think Lepage’s one tragic error in his Met experience, was in under-estimating the challenges of singing. They don’t stand there belting because they’re fat and lazy, it’s because singing is a colossal athletic enterprise that 99.99% of the population can’t do. That Terfel was able to tumble around on The Machine while singing Wotan is amazing, and added a huge additional dimension to his portrayal. But there are clearly some different approaches that Lepage uses. In Faust he’s using doubles and dancers/acrobats in the big set pieces, as he does a little in Erwartung, whereas in Needles & Opium he pushes his performers to the limit, as he did with you in 1992. As with Julie Taymor’s Spiderman, you see a big push-back from the performers concerning issues of safety. Debbie Voigt is shown in the Ring documentary adamantly declaring that she won’t get up on the machine: a position she recanted. But maybe the next generation needs more of a Milli Vanilli / ubermarionette approach, where you get singers and have them offstage the way one does in bun raku (something i’ve tried a few times with mixed results), instead of putting their bodies at risk.

      It sounds as though you could have a great deal more to say about this Craig… Please post if you have time. And thank you so much for this contribution.

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