Circa’s ‘Il Ritorno’ portrays universal message of grief and longing

Il Ritorno
Tristram Kenton/Courtesy

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Springing from one side of the stage to the other, a dancer-acrobat flung himself onto the ground and jumped back up in a move that was at once acrobatic and beautiful, but also unsettling in its convulsive abruptness. Some audience members gasped and some applauded, but most remained silent, engrossed in “Il Ritorno’s” wholly visceral depiction of grief — a depiction that ultimately proved to be far more than a display of circus tricks.

In an age in which opera, circus and classical music seem like vestiges of the past, Australian troupe Circa took on the bold task of creating a contemporary performance that combined Baroque opera and chamber orchestras with contemporary dance and circus acrobatics. Circa’s performance of “Il Ritorno” on Saturday at Zellerbach Hall was part of Cal Performances’ “Berkeley RADICAL: Blurring Boundaries” series, featuring artists weaving together various forms of performance art.

“Modern” is certainly not the first word that comes to mind for a performance based on a 17th-century Monteverdi opera detailing the story of Ulysses’ return to Ithaca from the Trojan War, yet Circa managed to paint a universal picture of struggle and grief through a careful balance of grace and tension in the dancers’ movements.

The show immediately opened with a sense of unease — seven dancers clothed in darkness, under just enough light to reveal the tension in their muscles, made erratic body movements that seemed wholly unnatural yet undeniably controlled. Already, there was a clash between the classical-sounding, melancholic tune played by the strings and the uncanny quality of the dance.

Each of the men and women were then introduced as distinct but unnamed characters — it wasn’t obvious for much of the show exactly who was Ulysses, Telemachus or Penelope. In fact, it’s unclear whether such ambiguity served the production. On the one hand, the narrative and flow would have been more cohesive with identifiable characters, but by obscuring these details, our attention was directed solely to the movements — the restlessness, the drama and the unsureness.

This raw emotion presented itself in the very first moments and never let up throughout the 75-minute performance, a credit to the expressive acting of each member of the ensemble. In a powerful moment, one man stood at the front of the stage, repeatedly being contorted into different positions by the other dancers — struggling, but ultimately unable to resist these outside forces. Another stood staring forlornly into the audience, as if he were looking into the distance for a homeland he couldn’t see.

Tristram Kenton/Courtesy

Tristram Kenton/Courtesy

Even more incredible was the juxtaposition of such an expressive display of emotion with a quality of physical restraint. Even though the performance heavily featured circus acrobatics, there was a sense that the dancers were holding back, that they were capable of even more. The dancers’ movements seemed boxed-in and shackled, paralleling their characters, who were consumed and overwhelmed by grief.

The evolution and range of music styles used in the production enhanced the portrayal of cycles of struggle and catharsis. Both a live chamber orchestra and backing track were used, as well as live singers for the opera arias, all of whom took turns at the forefront, dancing around each other.

At one point, the backing track took over, playing a piece with heavy slow beats that sounded like a film score, which stood in stark contrast to the triumphant homecoming aria and soft cello pizzicato of earlier segments of the show. For a show that was all about clashing concepts and feeling out of place, this sound design worked splendidly.

It was the amalgamation of all these often discordant elements that paradoxically created a cohesive display of uncertainty and longing. The emotional journey each individual went through — from moments of pain to calm — bridged the story of Ulysses’ homecoming to the story of refugees in today’s world, displaced from their home countries and struggling to find their place in another. The portrayal of a group of people, moving over and around each other, subject to both physical contortions and emotional demons in their search for home, illuminated the plight of displaced peoples throughout time.

Ultimately, “Il Ritorno” straddled the classical and modern to find beauty in the unnatural, conveying a powerful, emotional message that is especially resonant today.

Contact Lynn Zhou at [email protected].