Circa acrobatic troupe soars to new heights at Zellerbach Hall

Justin Nicholas/Atmosphere Photography/Cal Performances/Courtesy

A woman is hanging onto a rope, supported by just one quivering hand. A drop of at least 30 feet separates her from the hard, flat ground below. Slowly, she loosens her grip, her muscles slacken — something is about to happen. Suddenly, relinquishing the weight of her body to fate and to gravity, she plummets twirling downwards only to be stopped just short of the floor by the ropes ingeniously wrapped around her torso. The audience lets out a relieved chuckle. Although this all sounds dangerous, crazy even, tricks like these are all in a day’s work for the acrobatics troupe Circa.

Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, Circa is a group of acrobats at the forefront of innovation in contemporary circus. They have toured performing their award-winning works in 33 countries and across six continents since 2006, featuring the Debussy String Quartet as their full-time string ensemble. Their Thursday performance of “Opus,” brought to Zellerbach Hall by Cal Performances, came to fruition under the direction of Yaron Lifschitz. Those expecting the traditional circus fare of juggling gimmicks, trapeze tricks, gaudy face paint and even gaudier facial expressions were in for a surprise — one that happily shattered stereotypical conceptions of acrobatics. This was no superficially diversional, purely for shock-value show, but rather a truly cerebral exploration of the body, the tension between the individual and community and the physical embedding of history in the body. This was art at its finest.

“Opus” began by ushering its viewers into an ethereal, dreamlike state, with a massive expanse of fabric billowed and twisted over the stage floor. As the quartet (Christophe Collette and Marc Vieillefon on violin, Vincent Deprecqm on viola and Cédric Conchon on cello) struck the eerie opening notes of of Dmitry Shostakovich’s “Adagio for String Quartet,” they appeared to be suspended over the waves of some surreal, diaphanous ocean. The four musicians remained onstage for the entirety of the 80 minute-long performance, allowing the audience to witness the music as it was created and as it interacted with the 14 acrobats. Later in the performance, the quartet was actually blindfolded while the acrobats tumbled and flew around them; their bodies became the sensation of music, a physical manifestation of every note and every bow stroke.

In short, “Opus” was astounding, not just for the utterly miraculous physical feats it demanded, but also for the innovation and imagination in its choreography. A mixture of dance, aerial, acrobatics and storytelling, “Opus” also incorporated props like chairs, hoops and ropes.  But, of course, the body was the featured spectacle — the troupe constructed a human staircase, giant arch and tall pillars, all with nothing but strength and a liberal amount of trust. The audience was rapt in nervous attention as the acrobats crawled gingerly onto one another to form stacks three people high or tossed each other like sacks of flour, and laughed every time a seemingly treacherous fall turned into a graceful and purposeful landing.

The most mesmerizing moments of the night, however, were not the eye-catching tricks, but rather more somber scenes when the interplay of music and motion came to life. The entire ensemble would be standing onstage, still and silent but for the lament of the violin, and then suddenly their bodies would explode into a frenzy of repeated leaps and flips, like water droplets jumping on a burning hot pan. With every series of diving somersaults or whirling flips, they looked less like human beings and more like agitated insects writhing and twisting in the air.   Nevertheless, this was not a performance lacking in humanity. It was humbling to witness the acrobats’ interaction with each other as well as with the audience. At one particularly beautiful point, the entire ensemble stood mesmerized as one woman performed a graceful sequence on aerial silks twisted like strands of DNA, elevated above the rest of the world as she ascended. Clumped together, no movement other than their own labored breathing, the audience became a single pulsing being, united in hope and awe at the astounding capacity of the human body.

Contact Madeline Zimring at [email protected].