It makes me feel old to say this, but I haven’t been to the circus in decades. I don’t recall much about my experiences, besides the smell of elephants and the strange clowns, but I distinctly remember the trapeze artists and acrobats. Dressed in bright sequined costumes, they would swing and flip and defy death on either side of the ring, and I would whip my head back and forth, unsure of whom to watch, not wanting to miss a moment of either dangerous performance.
Australia’s contemporary circus company Circa captures that feeling of magic and awe; it’s almost overwhelming at times thanks to the sheer strength and talent of the group’s seven members. Their Spoleto debut at the Memminger Tuesday night literally had many audience members on the edge of their seats, as they performed one incredible stunt after another.
Of course, this isn’t the circus of our youth. It’s been cleaned up quite a bit, refined into a “respectable” art form with cinematic lighting, dramatic staging, and a contemporary soundtrack. The show is split into short vignettes that highlight the talents of the various performers, from a curvy gal who fits her body through a small hoop to a man who does a handstand on two fingers.
The show begins with everyone on stage running about frantically, rolling, flipping, and sometimes crashing to the stage. Their bodies move as if controlled by an outside force, as if they’re possessed. As the show progresses, the performers’ movements become more fluid and even sensual at times, particularly during the duets. Early on, the audience realizes that this is an equal-opportunity circus — a woman is just as likely to lift a man on her shoulders as a man is to toss a woman across the stage or use her as a jumprope.
Made of pure muscle, the performers’ bodies are almost as awe-inspiring as the stunts themselves, and the aerial segments highlight their stunning physiques in the most dramatic way. At one point, a girl slinks her way up and down a rope. Later, a man balances on his head — just his head — on a swing high above the stage.
While there’s no narrative per se, there’s plenty of comedy — as when one performer does a clown-like routine with his expressive hands — and drama. The crowd sat up a bit straighter during a segment in which a woman in sparkly red pumps walks all over a man. People groaned aloud as her heels poked through his ribs and got dangerously close to his crotch.
For the final vignette, the dark background is removed so the performers’ shadows are reflected onto the white wall behind them. As in the first scene, they all run around doing their own thing, and it’s hard to decide what to look at. It’s obvious that they’re having fun as they smile at each other and exchange knowing looks. By the end, even without a distinct storyline, we feel that we know a little more about each performer, from the burly redhead that can hold everyone on his shoulders to the playful, wide-eyed hoop dancer.
Spoleto created a new category for Circa, because they really don’t fit in any other. Though they incorporate elements of theater and dance, it’s circus at it’s core — just a completely innovative, exhilarating, mesmerizing version of it.