Circus music, an under-rated art form if there ever was one, can range from bombastic hurdy gurdy calliope-influenced versions of evergreen pop (Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Garden Brothers, Cirque du Soleil) through inflated world beat (Odysseo, Cirque du Soleil) all the way to rock n' roll (Cirque du Soleil) and hardcore rock n' roll (Archaos). The underlying common thread is the beat. Circus music must not only drive the action forward, provide a rhythm for the acts to move upon, but also be flexible so that if a catch or a throw is missed (or, much worse, if the audience needs to be distracted from disaster), the band can vamp until the show can continue.
Circa's Opus dispenses with tradition and upends the balance. The music - selections from the catalogue of Dimitri Shostakovich played gloriously by the Debussy String Quartet - is sacrosanct in Opus, and the quartet even enters first, tantalizing our ears with a melody containing a dissonant hook. A hunky tousle-haired ginger, Lewis West, in semi-formal wear but bare feet, performs a lyrical ribbon act while the quartet circles and cajoles him on. There is a spectacular trompe-l'oeil and the stage explodes with the 14 member strong troupe.
Opus is not circus acts with classical music accompaniment, the 'wow' moments are subtle and integrated while still drawing gasps, nor is it illustrative dance. It is some new hybrid that mesmerizes. The performers fling themselves across the stage and are caught in mid-air, like La La La Human Steps pushed to an extreme. Bodies slam to the ground providing the only percussion. Superhuman feats appear feasible because they are wedded so closely to the ravishing sonics. It is hypnotic with the undercurrent of fear that a good circus act creates, raging underneath the score and generating delicious suspense.
The danger with such an artistic approach to the circus is that suddenly it has to mean something more than just thrills. Director Yaron Lifschitz offers copious notes on the musical choices and Opus flirts with profundity. Black ribbons around the performers wrists and ankles are echoed in a ritual blindfolding of the musicians; unusual body parts are used for balancing or impact, to the point where we fear for spinal injuries; individuals rise out of mass groupings to soar and be re-absorbed; fingers are inserted into mouths for manipulation but the only vocalizations are West's rare guttural shouts to keep particularly tricky acrobatics on track; the traditional strongman who supports flies through the air to be caught and held aloft; grids are followed or transgressed; circular hoops and squared chairs are the only props . . . What does it mean? In the end it doesn't matter and the cascade of ideas meld into a throbbing passionate flood of feeling that bypasses the brain and sits in the gut: the thrills matter as much as the precision of the music.
On a purely visual level, Opus is spellbinding. Fortunately the formal wear disappears in stages and a section where the men, clad only in tiny black shorts, tumble and soar around and against each other is breathtaking eroticism. There are more heaving pectorals, rock hard buttocks, anaconda biceps and three-dimensional abdominals than a sexual fantasy. The men support each other, caress each other and radiate a casual masculinity that tastes of strength rather than machismo.
That passage, which would be the climax of most productions, is followed by an extended female trapeze solo that echoes and comments on an earlier male version. It is not a competition, but a demonstration of what a human body can do. She hangs by a single foot, by her jaw, and the history of the circus condenses into a moment where sideshow feats become artistic statements. The cast bunches at the back of the stage and inches forward. Some limbs are splayed or weakened, they stumble and assist each other in a dance of misfit toys struggling toward the spotlight. It is lyrical, uplifting and heartbreakingly beautiful.
The Bluma Appel Theatre is an intimate space for a circus and the closeness to the action creates an extra thrill. The performers, unusual for a circus, are so close to us that their individuality blossoms even as they function flawlessly as a cohesive single unit: it is a perfect metaphor for a circus.
Opus continues until Thurs, Nov 16 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. canadianstage.com