Finding humanity at the intersection of contemporary dance and circus

Circa stages West Coast debut of Humans in Portland

Circa, Australia’s leading contemporary circus dance company, has chosen Portland for the West Coast premiere of Humans, which runs through October 13 at the Newmark Theatre. This is a smart show with lots of audience appeal; it’s family-friendly enough that there’s even a Sunday matinee. Artistic director Yaron Lifschitz describes Humans as “a report on what it means to be human. How can you express the very essence of this experience with your body? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?” This show quickly reveals how contemporary circus arts can help answer these questions about the human experience.

According to dance critic and producer Cindy Sibilsky, contemporary circus performance was “born out of the desire to utilize the exceptional physical vocabulary of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and other specialty-skilled performers, modernize them and update the expressions bodily, emotionally and visually and transform both audience and critical perception of what circus is and can be.” Circa just as effectively explores what contemporary dance is and can be.

Circa in “Humans.” Photo by Pedro Greig, courtesy White Bird.

Aesthetically, Humans is stripped down. Almost every trapping of traditional circus is missing: there’s no knife-thrower flinging sharp objects around an assistant’s body, no clowns, makeup, animals, ringmasters, juggling, or really any props at all, save the few that can support performers (trapeze and aerial straps do appear at points). There are touches of slapstick in some of the performers’ interactions, but no dedicated passages of physical humor, as would appear in a traditional variety-style circus performance. Acrobatic movement is the major part of circus heritage that Circa brings to the stage, along with intense collaboration, coordination, and trust among the performers as they display world-class acrobatic prowess. The physical stakes are high enough to elicit gasps from the audience many times throughout the evening.

What is included and what is left out are crucial both to this style of circus and to contemporary dance. Dance after postmodernism sees the stage as a radically open space to let the medium speak for itself, unhindered by traditional forms or expectations. The conventions of circus as circus, or any genre performance, really, are at odds with that philosophy. Conventions are both strengths and limitations of an art form—they provide a rich structure to work within, but can also limit what can be said and done within that framework. So the question is: within the open space of contemporary dance, has Circa used the language of circus arts to say what it means to say?

Over and over throughout the show, the answer is a resounding yes. Bridie Hooper’s contortionist skills amplify the messiness of human relationships and the awkwardness of being left behind after she finds herself the only one onstage after a fractious duet. Todd Kilby, the strongman of the troupe with a mustache to fit the part, takes the question “How much can we carry?” to impressive (and literal) heights when the majority of the company is stacked on his broad shoulders. Recognizable poses from acrobatics and acro dance are deconstructed at points, as performers carry or pose their partners in these tricky shapes. In these cases, it’s not just “wow” for the sake of “wow,” it’s putting circus movement in a broader contemporary context to look deeply at the effort and expression that this movement vocabulary elicits.

When the circus and contemporary movement occasionally fail to gel here, it has more to do with the show’s pacing than its performance. Circus is a maximalist art form—bigger and louder is better. On this point, it’s the intense focus of contemporary movement that gets in the way of the circus, if anything. Toward the end of the show I realized I had lost track of how many human pyramids and towers had been assembled (which, to be fair, is pretty cool). Whether there is too much “wow” is a matter of personal taste, proportion and balance. The most distracting aspect of the show, as I’ve found with other contemporary shows, is the music. There is simply too much, too jarringly cut between genres and songs. My companion’s guess was that everyone in the troupe got to pick a track.

These criticisms are worth noting only because there’s so much virtuosity and talent on display that you don’t want to miss a moment of it. Unquestionably, it’s a rousing show full of humor, risk, and real moments of connection among performers who mix athleticism with expression to a degree that few companies can match. The NEA, in discussing circus arts on its blog, put it well: “While the circus arts are definitely about spectacle … they are also about tradition, community, and apprenticeship.”

Humans is a fun and thoughtful work that brings the strengths of the circus tradition to a contemporary platform to really study the strange creature for which it’s named.

 

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