The Return (il ritorno): Circa strips down in search of high art
by DREW ROWSOME -
It is rare when something comes along that challenges one's very conception of what a specific artform is. There are hybrids and mashups and stretching of forms, but to upend stereotypes and tropes takes a nerve and daring. It is a risk.
With The Return (il ritorno), circus troupe Circa takes a huge risk in a bid to reveal the circus arts as a serious artform. Stripped of gaudy colours and sequins, and with a sumptuous but classical-based and austere score, The Return is raw, riveting and disorienting. The acts are integrated into a thematic storyline that hints at sadness, alienation and man's inhumanity to man. Instead of showmanship, revelling in the wonders that their bodies are capable of, the feats of strength and agility, are almost painful, almost a curse visited upon them.
Backed by an imposing blank wall, a metaphor made even bleaker by recent events, the cast stares forward or into space. One man does a spectacular back flip that elicits gasps, but he lands, pointedly, with a resounding thud, flat on his back. Circa's Opus turned circus acts into something akin to modern dance, where the ideas and emotions are paramount. The Return goes further and much darker,
What would usually be acts are interspersed throughout ensemble groupings. Nathan Knowles impossible contortions bring him no joy - he is assisted and ignored in equal measure but neither seems to help. The strongman Nathan Boyle is the base of human pyramids but then himself needs to be borne aloft by a fragile appearing gamine in a stunning reversal. Even the one conventional circusy section - silks, trapeze and balancing - is performed deadpan by Nicole Faubert, Cecilia Martin and the astonishingly limber Bridie Hooper. One could feel the audience aching to cheer or gasp but there was to be no release of the tension.
The chamber orchestra, electronics on tape, and two fine opera singers (Kate Howden and Benedict Nelson) provide a moody accompaniment that sometimes dominates by sheer virtue of the emotional immediacy that a human voice creates. There are hints of relationships between the performers but there are no connections and, tragically, that extends across the footlights. While wanting to be swept away into the world of The Return, the audience remains at a reserve, observing, analyzing, intellectually engaged but oddly cold.
The cast crawls along the wall, flings themselves around and then one of the extraordinarily lithe and handsome duo Marty Evans or Todd Kilby, flies across the stage in a ferocious series of cartwheels, flips and leaps before launching into a back flip and landing, with a horrendous thud, flat on his back. The lights go out and The Return is over.
Though the feats are breathtaking, this is no razzle dazzle circus. Artistic director Yaron Lifschitz has penned quite extensive notes in the program about the ideas, themes and classical texts that inspired The Return. The narrative he discusses is not in evidence but as a jumping off point for creating a mood, a direct appeal to emotions, it works fine. What is intriguing is the paragraph where he writes that The Return is personal because,
" . . . for the past 17 years I have believed, naively, totally, and to the embarrassment of many doubters that circus is a real artform. That it can express deep emotions and higher truths, that it can grapple with issues, exalt our spirits and touch our souls. Sadly, today it is constantly debased by the idea that it can only entertain. Liek opera, it is full of conventions and keepers of the 'one true way' who suffocate it by purporting to protect it. So I wanted to break it all. To rebuke those who think opera is about sets and warbling, to annoy those who believe circus is extension of the strip club or adolescent technicolour lycra fantasy."
Lifschitz's motives, and those of the ensemble, are noble, to elevate the circus to a pure recognized art. Noble but slightly misguided. Art can take itself too seriously and the camp, pageantry, pompousness and sensuality of a circus is part of its very artfulness, its very soul. While The Return is an attempt that doesn't quite achieve its goal, it is an experiment that I, or anyone with even a passing interest in the circus arts, am glad to have seen. And I'm very curious to see what Circa does next, sometimes going to an extreme leads to a return to a new and exciting centre.
And there is no way that even the most ascetic aesthetic can erase the erotic soul of the circus. (I doubt even swathes of burlap over Knowles' treasure trail would disguise his arousing appeal.) Magnificent human bodies doing the seemingly impossible will always inspire all parts of the psyche. Circa's exploration of the high arts is fascinating, but when it re-integrates the low arts, the circus roots, it will be sensational.
The Return (il ritorno) continues only until Sun, May 7 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. canadianstage.com