Opus | Circa / Debussy String Quartet

February 2014 | Barbican Theatre, London

Circa recently performed to sell-out audiences with How Like an Angel at St Bartholomew-the-great with British ensemble I Fagiolini, combining impressive physical feats and harmonies from medieval repertoires. This time round they bring circus improvisation, tumbling and acrobatics with three of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Since they’ve already established that classical music makes a good soundtrack for contemporary circus, in what ways have they developed this style of collaboration? The acrobatics are slick and always surprising, making use of every opportunity and space to pull off impressive moves. The performers begin with small improvisations creating meetings and playing with each other. Then there is a solo aerial demonstration which, although technically very good, made one hope that the show wouldn’t be structured completely in this manner; lists of circus styles is for the traditional environment.

Fortunately the bulk of the piece involved several short skits with multiple acrobats. A game developed using a hula-hoop while performers juggled themselves through and around it. The action switched between dance circus and complex equilibristics, and just when the trick looked like it was concluded they pushed it even further. However, the hand-balancer didn’t look too comfortable with a wobbly one-hander on a chair. The music was performed well by the quartet, having the difficulty of maintaining complicity in the action surrounding them. The cellist, especially, had to move and play at the same time, which warrants extra praise. One questions the use of microphones that became a technical issue in the case of whining feedback from one of the instruments: the mics didn’t do much to boost the music, either. Also, the tonal dynamics and relationship between the strings suffered because they were staged across the large space and not often placed strategically to read/interpret each other. An impressive game was made with a blindfolded quartet while the acrobats positioned themselves into a grid, marching through the space while others tumbled across, timing and spacing themselves so that they intertwined. Occasionally one was just too slow and they were grabbed as they passed. This revealed element brought the action to a live state which was a nice twist in contrast to other rehearsed sections.

Unfortunately the interaction between the musicians and the acrobats was under-explored. The few moments were brief but not subtle which left an obvious gap. Sometimes the musicians were forced to negotiate the space while playing as they were led around. Other times they clearly organised each other into various positions for the next section but with no accompanying action. More involvement with the tricks would have been welcome as both groups proved themselves in their respective area while the games always seemed to have a surprising push beyond what we considered a conclusion; so despite the performers making everything look easy, perhaps they could have pushed certain limits together as they were happily doing in their own right. In that respect, there has been little development since How Like an Angel but watching any collaboration across different art forms at their best is still a joy to watch.

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