Tonight I saw Humans by the Circa Ensemble a visiting troupe from Australia. I read the following brief preamble from Yaron Lifschitz, the Artistic Director of Circa. While it was poignant before the show, it was positively illuminating to re-read it afterwards, and to reproduce it now.
“We humans are a fairly weak, unimpressive species. Anything we can achieve physically can be easily surpassed by a well-trained monkey. An injured pigeon can fly higher and longer than the best acrobat in the world. A snake can bend infinitely more than the most flexible of contortionists. But it is precisely because we are human that our physical achievements acquire dignity, meaning and poetry. It is in connection to our vulnerability that our strength find its true articulation. In our limitations are out possibilities.
In humans I have asked our ensemble of artists “what does it mean to be human”? How do you express the very essence of this experience with your body, with the group and with the audience? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?
The creation is the result of this investigation—a report on what it means to be human.” (Yaron Lifschitz)
I was impressed by what I saw of Circa in their last appearance in Toronto 18 months ago. I’m hungry for a synthesis of media, a new language that’s a blend of procedures from disciplines we might identify with labels such as “circus” and “dance” or “theatre”. Humans, the piece we saw tonight, takes us further in offering a fulfillment of that heady whiff of something new & original that I caught last year.
It was a delight to be surrounded by people much younger than myself at the Sony Centre tonight.
I’d like to take a stab at expanding on Yaron’s “report on what it means to be human,” at least from what I could see.
Displays of virtuosity have often been geared towards showing us superman or superwoman, the gap between what they can do and what we can do. Whether we mean singing or dancing or circus performance, humanity can get lost when one is too busy showing off.
And that is the key difference with Yaron’s report.
We watch remarkable specimens move and tumble, displaying their skills but often falling, often showing vulnerabilities as well as strengths. We see frailty and pain alongside the more typical displays of procedures with bodies & floors & aerial apparatus. We see reminders of the arbitrariness of our society and what it deems competence or incompetence, through a series of social actions among the bodies onstage, imitating one another absurdly. At times the pace is frenetic, while in other places we are given something softer & more reflective, the music taking us inward, or at times to something blatantly comical. There is some pathos in watching a body that is as passive as a puppet, controlled and moved by the actions of another person. It’s a largely abstract exploration, as the performers make few sounds, tell us little except what we assume from watching them move and their expressions as they interact. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes a big crowd sculpted into fascinating aggregations of limbs and bodies.
Tonight thrilled as an inter-disciplinary work that isn’t quite dance or circus or theatre: or any single discipline, something really new and a fertile ground for exploration and development. I’m certain there’s much more to be seen & heard from Yaron & Circa in the years to come. While there were moments when we were clearly watching something recognizably circus, procedures we’d seen before, yet there were many more moments where the movement vocabulary had combined elements or even given us new & unrecognizable ones, taking us into unfamiliar territory. The disorientation was electrifying. Time flew by, the 75 minutes of the show feeling like perhaps 15 or 20 jam-packed minutes.
I am reminded of a paper I gave years ago concerning improvisation, that used aerial work as a departure point. I heard a story of firemen coming into a space where aerials were being done, and their perception of the risks. It was hugely ironic that these professionals who themselves take risks that we might find daunting, perceived a risk in others. But perceived risk is not the same as a real risk, whether one is watching someone doing a floor exercise, listening to a jazz solo, or an aria with a cadenza. I’ll set aside the work of a fireman, which is genuinely risky. A performer may seek to create drama from the illusion of risk, when they’re actually confident of their ability to sing coloratura, hit a high note on the instrument, or execute a flip with their body. It was especially shocking to watch skillful falls executed. It sometimes looked painful.
I’m grateful for the serendipity of seeing this the very day after the Tafelmusik concert, when I speculated about applause. Tonight I watched an enthusiastic group bursting into cheers –clapping and sometimes hooting & hollering—in the midst of routines as well as respectfully applauding at the end of segments. Applause seems to be socialized, although I’m not sure exactly how it works. Tonight I was in the land of the ‘woot’ rather than the ‘bravo’. A woot doesn’t seem designed to be especially loud so much as to signal a kind of peer thing, something that sounds like “I appreciate you and want you to know you’re cool”, and not to be confused with a wilder howl or cry as one makes in pure appreciation, cries that wouldn’t be out of place at a hockey game. The applause could erupt at any time, reminding me of the newness we were discovering in the concert last night. When something is really new the applause is different than when we’re giving applause that is in some sense contracted or promised due to an existing relationship (for instance when we come to the end of a jazz solo or when we see an aerialist descend at the end of a routine: and we’re expected to offer applause).
I’ll be watching for future creations from Circa, to see where they take their new procedures & vocabulary. And I’ll be reflecting on what I saw tonight, the most stimulating show I’ve seen in awhile.
Here’s a tiny sample.