Three performances remain of The Return (il ritorno) at the Bluma Appel Theatre, the last of Canadian Stage’s “Spotlight Australia”, a kind of festival that they’ve offered the past few weeks. The Return, from Circa appears to be the creation of Yaron Lifschitz, who wrote an extensive program note, a kind of manifesto in defense of circus as so much more than what it’s usually permitted to be. In my case he’s preaching to a convert. This could be a version of Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, although we get bits of Monteverdi interspersed with lots of other music. This is not the conventional approach to telling a story. The singing is lovely but it’s in Italian without titles. If you’re open to it, you’ll connect mostly to the physical element, the bodies in many different positions.
There are many people I’m wishing could go see this, as it’s a kind of textbook study in semiosis & signification. The stage picture before you separates the discreet channels physically, so that it’s almost like bun raku, where you have the puppet on one side and the story-teller on the other: except this time it’s a split between music-makers and physical performers. One channel is aural / musical and mostly static, while the other channel is that of the dance or the circus, of pure energy, effort, and the ongoing struggle with the law of gravity. It’s fascinating and likely to inspire anyone making theatre, dance, circus, opera, or any combination of the above. If you are any of those, do whatever is necessary to get a ticket. See it!
There are times when the movements are astonishingly impressive, beautiful to watch, heart-stopping, original, creative: but only loosely connected to what we’re hearing. The music is reduced to something that adds a bit of a cachet and glamour to the lovely movement. The idea of The Return —the predicament of the characters– may be signified in a general sense. If you’re open to it, if these images speak to you, then the connections will be made in your mind.
I have been desperate to see something like this: that is, what the Return purports to be. Yes I’ve been waiting for this. No seriously, for years and years I have been dreaming of this moment, after getting the first glimmer back in the 90s. “Circus” is a whole vocabulary, a discourse (or perhaps more accurately, a series of discourses, if we distinguish between aerials and acrobatics and animals and the other pathways that don’t immediately come to mind, that could be subsume under that broad circus tent) that could do so much more than the roles to which it’s often relegated.
Last November I saw a show that had similar ambitions, namely Balancing on the Edge, a meeting between new music and circus. It’s truly like comparing apples to oranges in trying to speak of these shows. I’ve wanted to see circus step more boldly into the arena of theatre & story-telling. It can be done, and it’s the same challenge that has been faced before.
We’re talking about making an abstract form signify more exactly and precisely, a challenge faced several times:
- Music leans upon text, and has employed a written program to create a “tone poem”, whereby something entirely musical aims to tell a story
- Dance too can tell a story, especially if movement is codified as in the style at the Bolshoi, where we are able to read movement without recourse to text
- And circus has been used as parts of other shows, thinking particularly of Robert Lepage’s theatricals, especially the operas such as The Tempest¸ Damnation de Faust, or the Ring Cycle, where aerials and acrobatics enlarge the expressive possibilities of a theatre form. But there are others, such as the Fura del Baus troupe.
On the occasion of Balancing on the Edge last fall, I asked whether disciplinarity is a kind of safety net that both assists us in our decoding but also prevents us from breaking through to something genuinely new. What I really loved in The Return was the ambiguity. Sometimes I felt i was watching figure skating, a formal duet of sorts between two people, even as they defied expectations. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether this might be a kind of dance or a kind of circus / floor exercise. The longer it went on, the more I felt that they themselves had their own rigid procedures, as one or two of them would come on or go off, doing an exciting series of movements that could just as easily be a duet or a pas de deux, in their preoccupation with a kind of display, showing off as blatantly as anything you find in opera or ballet. That’s good, even if it was a different set of procedures in play. Perhaps this is early in the development cycle, and they’ll evolve further.
The Return is wonderful to watch, full of moments suggesting new possibilities. I felt I was watching an athletic kind of dance, really, as there have been dance companies in Toronto employing at least part of this movement vocabulary. This is a very enjoyable show. I can’t help thinking that the arrival of a troupe from afar should be inspiring, opening new imaginative vistas. Claude Debussy’s creative life was spurred by the international Paris exposition in 1889 when he first heard the gamelan. This visit by our friends from afar could be every bit as inspiring.
But you have to go see it to find out.