Opus – Circa/Debussy String Quartet: The Barbican Centre, London, 18 February 2014

Game of throwns

'Oops', says Circa man, 'I sure picked the wrong day to start using baby oil on my hands'. Circa set their sights high for Opus.

‘Oops’, says Circa man, ‘I sure picked the wrong day to start using baby oil on my hands’. Circa set their sights high for Opus

In an intriguing collaboration with the Debussy String Quartet, Australian contemporary circus company Circa brought new show Opus to London’s Barbican Centre. Yaron Lifschitz’s attempt to merge physical feats of strength, balance and skill with the ‘high art’ of serious Classical music worked very well although it was still the sheer wow factor of people constantly on the verge of hurting themselves that made Opus so memorable.

The 14 multi-disciplined performers were absolutely incredible. From the opening moments when a guy hurtled to within inches of the floor from a rope (which he followed up by wrapping the rope around his arms to somehow wind himself back up towards the ceiling) it was clear it was going to be a spectacular evening.

The tumbling that dominated the show was extraordinary. Full-tilt jumps, backflips and somersaults rained across the stage, often with the performers landing flat on their heads. They also had the unnerving knack of landing their jumps safely long after it looked like they’d gone past the tipping point. But it wasn’t just the physical prowess that was impressive – the hair-breadth coordination and artistry involved in the group scenes whereby a tumbler would lunge into two or three others to create new spaces for someone else to leap through was wonderful to look at.

There was also a simply stunning section once they’d all stripped down to their swimwear whereby the girls were swung about and literally hurled enormous distances through the air. One red-haired lady went on a lengthy excursion of being dropped, thrown and twizzled about in one of the most astounding scenes I’ve ever seen on a stage.

The only problem with such dynamic tumbling was that it took some mental adjusting to accept the more sedate pace of the intervening trapeze artists or contortionists. The hula hoop girls rode the balance well with their fancy ways of passing the tools of their trade to each other and there was a gorgeous image light-blurring when one of them had two hoops on the go as she was being escorted across the floor.

Standing, sitting and being blindfolded amongst all this the Debussy String Quartet somehow managed to get their brooding Shostakovich out in clear, clean playing. Although the musicians themselves were rarely visually more than props for the designed whole, the chosen music was a fully integrated part of the performance, ideally suited to add depth and subtlety to the show’s physicality. The choreography of the piece also responded extremely well to the more unusual sounds of Shostakovich’s score.

Opus successfully avoided the episodic nature of many circus events by the use of consistent music and carefully crafted segues between acts. The disciplined choreography suited the gymnastic nature of the breathtaking performances and everything was superbly structured. In short, it was ruddy brilliant.

Opus runs at the Barbican until 22 February 2014. Tickets can be found on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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