Circa’s Sacre is running at the Vancouver Playhouse from Jan. 17 to 21, presented by DanceHouse and The Cultch.
It’s difficult to place the genre of performance presented to us by Circa. Promotional material boasts that the Australian company “blurs the lines between movement, dance, theatre and circus.” What we see in Sacre, by artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, is a vast borrowing that makes use of circus, contemporary dance, martial arts, gymnastics and even cheerleading to create a wildly impressive 65 minutes of entertainment. However, this melding of styles creates friction in the viewing – lacking both the embodied sensitivity of dance and the charming levity of circus, it lands somewhere illegible in between.
The ambitious work interprets Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring with 10 black-clad acrobats on a stark stage. But before we get to that timeless score, an original composition by Phillipe Bachman sets the tone like a gathering storm, with rumbles, whistles and crashing sounds.
Sacre is an immediate explosion of activity. Circa’s acrobats combine strength with flexibility to demonstrate feats of extraordinary skill. They climb up each other, topple from great heights and catch themselves with supple, suspended rolls. Their grasp of gravity is intuitive; two swing another like a skipping rope, a hand’s breath away from the floor without touching it. They stack like life-sized dolls, three humans high, and move about the stage – their quivering from the effort only barely perceptible.
Brief encounters hint at relationships but quickly dissolve. A performer lifts one leg in a quasi-attitude, then throws themselves into a horizontal cartwheel over their partner’s shoulders. They try this out with partner after partner, discarding them around the stage like spurned lovers.
Veronique Benett’s lighting design (cold spotlights and fills) is exceptional. In one section, the acrobats run through strobe lighting, hurling themselves at each other and the ground. The blackouts obscure the moments of recovery, making them appear to be momentarily stuck, hovering horizontally in space.
Bachman’s score eventually crashes to a halt, and the familiar, haunting notes of Stravinsky’s Rite begin. As the performers start to convulse, crumbling to the ground, I feel briefly hopeful that there is another dimension to Lifschitz’ choreography. But the priority of spectacular tricks prevents the second half from achieving the depths that Stravinsky’s score conveys. Anonymous black costumes (silk slips for the women, small black shorts and sheer tops for the men) leave me yearning for some kind of character development or a glimpse of individual expression.
Instead, the connection with the audience is of a different kind; we feel invested in the performer’s well-being as they begin to show fatigue, forming shaking sculptures of gleaming skin that reach towards the rafters. Moments of surprising virtuosity quite literally take my breath away and elicit gasps from the audience. In a final sequence, a female performer finishes a painstakingly slow ear-high développé to fall sideways into the splits, after completing innumerable back handsprings. (I wonder, is she meant to be the virginal sacrifice of the Rite’spagan ritual?)
The great disappointment of Sacre is that Stravinsky’s passionate, driving score is unequally matched by the emotional expression of the performers. But in terms of bare physicality, the artfully arranged kaleidoscope of bodies (hoisted up high, limbs falling every which way) comes close.