The Barbican is once again stretching boundaries and blurring genres while hosting Opus, a collaborative production devised by Circa and the Debussy String Quartet. The idea was spawned by Circa director, Yaron Lifscitz’s love of Shostakovich’s classical music. The two companies combine to create a classical string concert acrobatic circus-hybrid. As written in the director’s note,Opus is a work of juxtapositions and tensions melding together to create jaw-dropping and passionate art.
However, Lifscitz seems to have forgotten the most prevalent binary in the show: that of beauty and the grotesque. The gravity defying jumps and leaps, while beautiful to look at, are also fear inspiring and even disturbing. Seeing bodies and bones contorted around a hanging bar, the entire weight resting on one fragile piece of human flesh in what must be a painful position cannot help but send a shiver of thrill and horror through the audience.
The Circa performers are amazing in skill and in humor – little moments peppered throughout the leaps, jumps and tricks that induce laughter throughout the audience. My one complaint would be that on occasion, their faces reveal the strain and concentration required by a trick. While I prefer to see this concentration than say a performer falling from 10 feet in the air, it still does take away from the beauty and ease of the piece. We should not be able to see how much effort it takes.
Now, both Circa and Debussy String Quartet are well known and respected for their individual work, the tricks are freakish and the strings beautiful. However, the real determinant of this production’s success is how well the two were intertwined to create a new approach to acrobatics and to Shostakovich’s music. This is where it is a bit of a mixed bag. Initially, the production does not seem to know what to do with the string quartet or how to match the musicality of the acrobatics to it. This is true especially of the slower pieces in the beginning. In addition, when the note from the Debussy String Quartet in the program proposes that the acrobats could use the instruments as props or the musicians could back bend, a certain expectation for integration is made. However, the closest the musicians come to actually interacting with the acrobats is when they are blindfolded and the performers physically, and slowly, move their bodies a few feet. This is not the integration I had expected nor the most innovative that I believe could have been achieved. Regardless, as the string pieces begins to pick up pace, the connection between the acrobats and musicians grows. Even when the movement is slow and measured as compared to the rapid strings, a sense of tension and group cohesion is finally felt.
While the piece occasionally feels like two separate groups coincidentally performing on one stage, the momentum picks up and creates an entertaining, funny and awe inspiring meld, pushing the bounds of human physicality to classical music.