At Harbourfront Centre I had the pleasure of attending a christening, for Balancing on the Edge is the tender infant resulting from a romance. Thin Edge Musical Collective met A Girl in the Sky Productions. New Circus and New Music flirted with one another. The immediate result? Balancing on the Edge, which might be understood as a series of children resulting from the encounter. It’s no shotgun wedding, indeed they don’t have a ring (excuse the pun).
By “new circus” I hope you understand the cluster of disciplines that used to be housed under the big top or perhaps clustered with Cirque du Soleil at a venue in Vegas or elsewhere. The animals are missing, possibly because that’s just too expensive to contemplate, but the aerial disciplines + clowns seem to be present and accounted for.
By “new music” I think we’re talking about something that’s sometimes not so new. Some may recall a television program from the last century on CITY-TV that co-opted the name from the conservatory-classical realm for the purpose of showing us new rock music: so the phrase is more than a quarter century old, and at least in romantic terms is older than the partner.
If my extended metaphors don’t drive you nuts, I hope you’ll see what I’m driving at. But let me quote the “message from the artistic directors” printed in the program to show you what I’m suggesting.
Welcome to Balancing on the Edge! Tonight’s synthesis of New Circus and New Music was inspired by an encounter where the producers of each discipline saw the creative work of each other for the first time and fell in love with the risk taking and visceral physicality being expressed. It sparked the recognition that these two unique art forms could come together to form a singular and powerful vessel with which to express transformative stories that are part of the human experience and investigate questions we don’t always have the answer to such as: What happens when we die? How do we cope? Are we alone? How can we connect in a world of technology? Where do we belong?
In a time of increasing precarity these concepts seem more pressing than ever to explore. We are so grateful to have had the chance to work closely with such an incredibly talented team of visionary artists over the past three years to realize this project! Tonight’s show will explore themes as diverse as motherhood, tectonic plates bicycle accidents, communication, helping hands, and deconstructing social formulas all underpinned and conversing with sound explorations on turntable, grand piano, string quartet, saxophone/bass clarinet, voice, live electronics and a batter of percussion instruments while breath-taking high-flying circus artists dance and juggle, on floating rocks, silks, rope, ladders & bicycles in columns of light against arresting images.
On behalf of the entire team, We’re thrilled to have you join us to experience first hand 6 incredibly personal expressions of what it means to be ‘balancing on the edge’!
Rebecca, Cheryl + Ilana
And so as a family outing we took in the six pieces. There were eight segments in all interrupted by an intermission. Each half consisted of three attempts at hybrid creation plus a “transition” from clowns Erin Ball and Sonia Norris:
- Magma – Rebecca Carney & Diana Lopez, music: Phonengraphenlieder(2014) Nicole Lizée
- Naked to the Sky –Manuel Cyr & Louis Barbier, music: Naked to the Sky (commissioned for this occasion) Scott Rubin
- Transition (Ball & Norris hysterically funny cleaning up /getting the audience to clean up the mess from the previous item)
- Underneath—Emily Hughes, music: Okho (1989), Iannis Xenakis
- Ascension—Holly Treddenik, Angola Murdoch, Stacie Dunlop, music: Aria & Fontana Mix (1958/59), John Cage
- Excavating Meaning—Brandy Leary, music: Amanha (commissioned for this occasion), Nick Storing
- Transition (Ball & Norris diverting us while a bit of tidying occurs. I got to dance with Norris when she pulled me out of the front row)
- Ghost Bicycle—Rebecca Leonard & Natasha Danchenko, music: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993), David Lang
The family outing was a huge success, I’m a hero for suggesting it. While their favourites were not my favourites we loved the clown transitions, and agree that Erin Ball is hugely inspiring to watch, an aerialist and clown who won’t let a little thing like an amputation come between her and performance. And she was funny.
So forgive me as I do my usual perambulation through the dramaturgy question, as I ask myself just what I’ve seen and how it works, and in the process see if there’s anything that can be learned.
I am no expert by any means in circus, just an eager and omnivorous aficionado. No that sounds pretentious. I like circus in everything, whether it’s opera, music-theatre, or a la carte. My background in music is more secure, even if the realm of music is just so huge that it’s impossible to know it all. After the dance piece I saw last night at CanStage from Bill Coleman, I’m inclined to think that maybe it’s time to come up with new terminology. What Coleman did might not be recognizable as dance, and similarly, much of what I saw today might not meet the criteria some people usually assign to “circus”, new or otherwise. Let me say that I am a bit of an agnostic about names, that disciplines, as a set of rules & procedures, can sometimes be huge impediments to creation. Of the six pieces, some were more conventional than others, or in other words, some did not really seem to be a marriage of new music and new circus after all, so much as a bit of polite hand-holding or smiling from across the room. The ones I thought of as the most daring and radical for their brave and vulnerable submission to the invasive ways of that bold suitor, weren’t necessarily what my family liked.
Is the desire to be popular perhaps an impediment? But maybe I’m using the wrong word, when “popular” can sometimes be synonymous with “intelligible”. The most daring pieces today were the hardest to understand. Two pieces were lovely aerial solos that, as far as I could tell, could just as easily have been done with something picked out of the record collection at home: or in other words, there was no real marriage of the two disciplines, no penetration (and you can take that rude word any way you want).
Three of the six were most problematic when they were ambiguous: when they were neither this nor that. And at those moments they were genuinely daring because they were new, perplexing, and adventurous.
- Louis Barbier (if I’ve identified the right artist) portrays something resembling a mad Tudor King, rolling and roiling about the stage, at one point furiously ripping the music from the performers music stands (I was the only one who laughed but wow what a funny moment of insanity, and what does it say that i identify?), eventually resolving our wonderment by becoming a juggler. The music going with this by Scott Rubin, one of the original works for this event, was at times, jazzy, at times soulful and subtle. For this piece we did seem to see symbiosis, something bigger than the sum of the parts, and an inter-penetration of the two media.
- The fullest integration between disciplines was surely in Ascension, the only piece where the aerialists (Holly Treddenick & Angola Murdoch) made sounds, and a singer (Stacie Dunlop) did acrobatics and some aerials. We were in John Cage’s bizarre sound-world, sounds and phonation resembling a language or meta-language, presented with all the trappings of meaningful speech in a mysterious social context.
- Ghost Bicycle was the one that raised the most questions for me, something I’m inclined to call an aerial dance piece, as I watched two performers do a pas de deux in the air. Again, I’m not sure if the music for this piece is really anything more than accompaniment, but the result is so magnificently inspired, I think it must be seen as a step forward.
Is disciplinarity safety? Or in other words, when we recognize procedures and codes, when we know where we are and what’s being done, does that allow us to relax a bit, removing ambiguities by offering a predictable horizon of expectation? are we being in some sense protected, given a kind of safety by the creator? Their choice may indeed by designed to offer them – the composer, the scenarist, the musician, and/or the aerialist—the rest and not us, by allowing them to be predictable for a moment. I joked in yesterday’s review about dance that, in doing what dance usually does, for instance flaunting a physique, in moving in ways that dancers habitually move (and I cited The Producers great line´”one two kick turn”), that gives our minds a break. I have this insight, that as far as information theory goes, thinking specifically about music, that redundancy brings us calmness, and by that I mean for example, the repetition of a Philip Glass or the lyricism of a composer of bygone times. More information, as in surprise or discord or drama takes us away from calmness. The same sort of calm can be found in familiar procedures, in knowing what’s going on, whereas ambiguity can cause tension; indeed it freaks some people out.
And so, the ones where the music is predictable in seeming to be subservient –and need I add, doing what music usually does with dance or opera—were all beautiful, were the ones that my companions loved. And maybe I ask too much, hungering for that old chestnut of the 20th century, namely significant form.
Maybe I ask too much.
I was thinking back to Fred and Ginger. What was it that they said? “He gives her class. She gives him sex.” Perhaps something very similar is going on when you pair New Circus with New Music. New Music needs the physical appeal that circus brings, the half-clothed figures twisting in silks above our heads are at least as sexy as Ginger Rogers. And similarly, New Music legitimizes circus with its intellectual appeal, indeed with an audience of intellectuals likely hungry for beautiful bodies to stare at.
Forgive me if anything I say sounds cynical. I would love to see more such encounters. So far we’re still at the flirtation stage. I’d like to see if future experiments are as fertile as these. Read more about A Girl in the Sky (here) and Thin Edge Music Collective (here).