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Reviews have called The Return emotional, sculptural and sublime.

Tristram Kenton

Title
The Return
Genre
Theatrespectacle
Company
Circa
Venue
Bluma Appel Theatre
City
Toronto

Who thought the latest battleground over what is or isn't "art" would be placed at the untroubled circus?

But circus as a serious discipline has become something of a trend on the contemporary performance scene in the past few years. At the helm of the movement is Circa, the touring, Brisbane-based troupe, led by Australian director Yaron Lifschitz. In his program notes for The Return, the company's latest show now playing at Canadian Stage's Bluma Appel Theatre, he explains that it's been a personal, 17-year quest to see the circus dignified as a "real art form." He compares the circus to the opera, a medium he worked in for many years. He laments the fact that his discipline is constantly debased as mere entertainment –"an extension of the strip club or adolescent Technicolor Lycra fantasy."

By and large, the critics have been on-board. His work often pairs acrobatics with live classical musical; for his 2014 Opus the performers were accompanied by the Debussy String Quartet playing Shostakovich. The Return features Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria sung by a tenor and a mezzo-soprano alongside a baroque quintet. Reviews have called the work emotional, sculptural and sublime. There've been allusions to Antony Gormley's hovering human cutouts and a ready eagerness to unpack the work along the opera's Odyssean themes of war and homecoming. In his notes, Lifschitz references Primo Levi's return from Auschwitz and gestures toward more contemporary instances of life in the aftermath of mass horror.

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It should go without saying that the effect of seven bodies on a stage (in stillness or motion) has any and every potential to make for the kind of complicated and evocative experience that we typically call artful. And every established discipline, be it opera or ballet, has conventions that set certain parameters on how this can be done, which, necessarily, adds an element of the predictable.

But within that predictability are techniques that have evolved over hundreds of years to express, well, human feeling. Not so with acrobatics, which has been passed down from courts to carnivals to Vegas dinner theatres with the principal intention, not merely to entertain, but to dazzle and impress. That shouldn't suggest that the effect of that dazzling can't incite a meaningful reaction. But for the circus to move us, it must rely wholly on effect, because the nuts and bolts of its technique are not, in themselves, expressive.

As viewers, we're set up to become gluttonous in the way we watch. This was the main reason for my alienation from Circa's Opus. Every dangerous, gravity-defying stunt might titillate for a moment or two until we think: okay, what's next? Four people stacked vertically on each other's shoulders is (possibly) fascinating the first time, but our threshold for being wowed is plotted on an upwards slope. What makes the predictability so banal and deadening is that it's not just in the action on stage, but also in our understanding of what's expected of us as an audience. The demands are slight; we just have to devour more.

The Return relies less on jaw-dropping stunts and more on bodily contortion. Whether twisting on aerial cords, dislocating shoulders on the floor or staggering across the stage in superhuman backbends, the performers school us swiftly in what to expect. In a purely anatomical sense, what they can do with their bodies is remarkable. To me, what's even more remarkable is how unexciting this is to watch. While there are beautiful effects rendered with light and shadow, and a few striking images that make use of a back wall, there's typically a disconnect between the tricks and the rest of the composition. The performers don't feel especially grounded in a continuous experience, but seem to move from one stunt to the next. The only real exception to this is a writhing, juddering solo performed by Bridie Hooper. But while her body is capable of assuming preternaturally weird positions, the emotional motivation feels just as muscled and forced.

Contortionism isn't pretty and the work is most interesting when it exploits its physical ugliness and begins to suggest a parallel between superhuman suffering and superhuman bodies. At one point, Hooper walks around on the flat edge of her toes (imagine a collapsed foot inside a pointe shoe – minus the shoe). In another, a male acrobat falls backward to land on the top of his spine over and over again. It's like watching a body torture itself, and while it wasn't exactly pleasurable to watch, I suddenly felt engaged, complicit and questioning. There were ethical ideas here, drawing on themes of spectatorship and horror, that demanded that I think and feel.

Ironically, the rest of the time, my eye felt drawn to the musicians –particularly Kate Howden's lovely evocation of the pining Penelope. While the acrobats whipped their bodies into big, brazen, joint-defying shapes, I relished the subtlety in the way the music affected her, the way she might lift her arm unexpectedly as she sang, the sense that she was experiencing as much as she was performing.

The Return continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre until May 7 (canadianstage.com).

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