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Orchestrating wonder: Opus at the Melbourne Festival

In Opus, circus and chamber music collide in an astounding fashion. Melbourne Festival

Rambunctious, athletic circus with elegant, controlled chamber music. Do opposites collide? Not in Opus, an intriguing collaboration between the chamber music Debussy String Quartet from Lyon, France and the Australian circus troupe Circa that was staged at the Melbourne Festival over the weekend. In Opus, they dance.

Shostakovich’s quartets swirl and shift, travelling tumultuous and unpredictable paths as the performers leap and bound across the stage, in equally thrilling measure. The meeting is a fruitful one.

What is so spectacular about spectacle?

I’m not usually intrigued by spectacle but Opus is a spectacle that moved even this sceptic. Of course the acrobatics were incredible. But that is not what caught me off guard.

It was the small moments – even more than the undeniably virtuosic and daring feats of gymnastics – that really took my breath away. The sleights of hand, the little surprises. Delicate images created then dismantled.

The beauty of a small, brief embrace after choreographic chaos had been let loose on stage. A laugh that gets caught in your throat. A man running madly from a cloud of smoke or a towering wave of water, created before your eyes with mere fabric and lights. Then, in an instant, with the swell of the strings, the fabric is lifted and 14 performers appear on stage.

How did the performers just appear on stage? Where does one body begin and the other end?

There are a thousand stories in Opus, a thousand moments like these that resonate. There’s a gnawing, clawing frustration, the feeling of being trapped. Standing on a precipice alongside one’s fear and trepidation. A collapse into exhaustion.

As I watched these moments unfold, I was reminded what is so spectacular about this sort of spectacle. There is magic here. You watch as the performers prepare themselves for the next acrobatic feat. You learn what to expect and, as you calculate how this might be possible and prepare yourself for what you’re about to see, you think you may just understand.

You feel smug or at least secure in the powers of your mind. The music builds, you can feel the moment arrive. And then they fall, or they leap, or they are thrown half way across the stage and you cannot help but gasp.

They have made the impossible possible. Or rather they have made the possible seem completely impossible.

There is an expectation that comes with everyday life. An expectation that things will adhere to some internal logic, to the rules of reality. We go to spectacle, we go to the circus to remind ourselves of the possibility that the imagination is stronger than reality.

Re-investigate – not just collaborate

The creative potential of interdisciplinary collaboration is no new concept in the art world. The past century has seen distinct artforms and other disciplines collide, collude and combine to create hybrid genres that defy categorisation. So a collaboration between musicians and physical performers is no great feat in and of itself.

Traditionally, in the West at least, when musicians play live in opera, ballet, musical theatre and circus, they are situated most often in the orchestra pit. So called because this space is located below the stage; the audience is thus instructed to ignore the musicians’ presence as much as possible.

Thus, what the Debussy String Quartet and Circa have done in Opus is not only a collaboration between artforms but a re-investigation of the relationships between stage, body, instrument and audience.

When the director and choreographer of Opus, Yaron Lifschitz, places the four musicians not only on stage, but in and among the action of the circus performance, possibilities abound. It becomes a conversation between musician and performer, between sound and shape. The instruments themselves dance, as bows bounce and sway like the limbs of a trapeze artist.

The musicians’ bodies too become part of the image, as they sit, stand, walk blindfolded or are carried through the space. The technical calls of the circus performers do not desecrate the elegance of the music so much as heighten its relevance.

Lifschitz holds no nostalgic adherence to aesthetic symmetry, coherence or linearity. Focus is constantly split. The viola is in the way. A dozen performers run, leap, crash, and flip over the stage, while something very quiet is happening upstage right. Conventions are dispensed with. The performers have their backs to us. The musician is being led off stage but the piece isn’t done yet. Challenges are offered.

Can you forget what you know about circus? About chamber music? About how to see a show? If you can, Opus is a delightful discovery.

Opus was performed at the Melbourne Festival. Details here.

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