Friday, March 2, 2012

Circus of pain

The twisted pleasures of Circa.

When I first saw the Australian troupe Circa at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, I found myself cringing at some of their antics.

But judging from its self-titled performances at the Paramount this weekend (a joint production of Celebrity Series and ArtsEmerson), Circa has only gotten more extreme.  Indeed, watching some of these routines, you can't help but think (as you twist in your seat) that it's only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt during one of these shows.

Then again, I get the impression that self-abuse is somehow deeply woven into Circa's performance DNA.  Pain has always been part of the discipline of acrobatics, of course - but usually as a means to an end, that is the thrill of physical virtuosity. With Circa, however, sometimes you feel that the pain is itself the end - that we're simply being invited to watch feats of endurance, pure and simple.  Some of the performers are pushed into contortions that seem physically impossible, and many routines finish with full body-slams to the floor, or incorporate flashes of violence; when the men build a human pyramid, for instance, the act ends when the middle tier is kicked to the ground.  Physical violation seems to be a sub-theme, too; at one point, the "strong man" sticks his hand between a woman's teeth, and picks her up by the roof of her mouth (she has already, during a rope trick, slid a glittering string up one nostril, and then snorted the other out between her lips).

Now pain does have its intrigue as a theme, I suppose - and it certainly seems to obsess young people these days (who in their bored spare time pierce their eyebrows or snap bolts into their ears).  Certainly during much of Circa, it's both hard to look, and hard to look away - and the troupe seems to understand precisely what it's doing: in one sequence, for example, a muscle-bound performer chases a spotlight, twisting himself into painful contortions to try to hang on to its attention.  If you'll look at me, I'll hurt myself!  It occurs to me that may, in the end, be the baseline of every circus's appeal.

So you can forget about any old-timey illusions of exoticism or romance in this particular circus (at least as envisioned by artistic director Yaron Lifschitz).  Like their compatriots of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, the kids of Circa disdain spangles and feathers; the boys perform shirtless, the girls in simple tights.  (But in a way, they're all boys; masculinity rules here.)  As for the "set," it's just a stripped-down gymnastics mat.  Still, for those of us who'd like to cling to some remnant of the grace of the daring young man on the flying trapeze, Circa has more than its share of eye- (and muscle-) popping wonders.   Hurtling cartwheels, flips, and somersaults are a specialty here, particularly from the astounding Lewis West, who seems unable to take more than two steps without arcing into the air; like Ariel, he is only loosely tethered to the ground.  Watching him, you wonder what heights of poetry Circa could attain, if it could only lighten up on the punishment.


  1. I just saw it, and yes sado masochism was a thematic element, but what about all the moments of humor and playfulness? Or sheer enjoyment of the human body? I guess it could have been tied together by a stronger thematic bow on top, but as a series of moments it was very captivating, thrilling and funny. I never feared for the safety of the performers, I could feel the sense of control they had over every moment of the show and it was quite the sight.

  2. Hmmm. "Humor," yes - "playfulness" . . . well, maybe kids just play rougher these days. I think there were one or two moments - like the time the strong man thrust his hand into the woman's mouth - that just struck me as creepy, and which colored the whole evening for me. The performers were certainly amazing.