Gardens have always been mankind’s place of sanctuary and beauty. The word “paradise” comes from the ancient Persian word for “walled garden”. Epicurus promised to help us seek the good life in his philosophic garden. The suffering of man only began when he was exiled from the Garden of Eden.
In Per Te (“For You”), the circus troupe Compagnia Finzi Pasca offers its audience an acrobatic garden of remembrance. The “you” in the title of the piece refers to Julie Hamelin Finzi, one of the co-founders and creative directors of the company, who died last year. The conceit of the production is that the audience is watching the rehearsal of an upcoming circus show while the company remembers and struggles to come to terms with the loss of one of its guiding lights.
At the outset, we learn that Julie believed everybody should build an inner garden to take shelter and to welcome those whom we love. The metaphor of the garden opens the show and it continues throughout the performance. The second act begins with an invocation of the African jungle, the cast mimicking the call of wild animals, before the stage is transformed into a garden where flexible rods and spinning plates imitate a sea of flowers. A park bench is one of the most recurring props in the show.
An anthology is literally a “collection of flowers” and this is what the show presents, a series of vibrant bouquets dedicated to celebrating the life of Julie. We get an anthology of her dreams, her passions, and her struggles with illness. It is an episodic, rather than a continuous, narrative.
Such a personal creation runs the risk of seeming mawkish and self-indulgent to an audience who never had a chance to know its subject. Yet the Julie that emerges as the cast reminisce is so relatable and full of life that she speaks to us all. In that sense, the “you” in the title also refers to “us”, the audience. This show is a gift that seeks to reaffirm our humanity in face of an often cold and capricious world.
Ultimately, contemporary circus shows succeed or fail not on their intellectual framework, but in the quality of the visuals that they are able to provide. Here we see the real strength of the company. Alongside the imagery of the garden, this show exercises a fascination with the power and potential of wind.
It is encouraging as we gaze out over the trail of destruction left by hurricanes Harvey and Irma to be reminded of the power of air to caress into being works of great beauty. Wind and love go together. Dante in his vision of Hell has those given to intemperate lust trapped within a spinning maelstrom. Relationships are tempestuous.
The great unsung heroes of the show are the wind machines. Arranged in a circle, they create a vortex in the centre of the stage and bring to life any object sucked into their slipstreams. They turn scraps of paper into hosts of butterflies and confetti into a Montreal snowstorm. One of the most visually arresting scenes involves watching two bolts of cloth swirl and float high above the stage, shepherded only by the gentle touch of poles wielded by cast members. It is sensuous, fluid, and completely entrancing. One never knows where these textiles are going or what form they will next assume.
The capriciousness of the fabric and contingency of its movement stands in stark contrast to the deliberate athleticism of the acrobats. These are highly sprung, trained bodies that know precisely to the very millimetre where they are going. Watching them spin, tumble, bend, turn, and refuse to be bound by the laws of physics is breathtaking.
Trapped in spinning hoops, their arms outspread, they are the image of Vitruvian man made real. These are the bodies that we aspire to have. We all like to believe that we can fly. Not even being dressed as medieval knights in one part of the show can slow them down. They are powered by passion - acrobats not so much in armour, but in amour.
Yet as the circus contortionists remind us, these are not normal bodies. Watching the audience visibly flinch as the stage contortionist disjointed himself in front of us was the act of watching our fantasies fall away. There is a price to be paid for being able to somersault with such ease and that is becoming one with the freakish.
When it comes to dialogue, the piece is less assured. There is a lot of verbal clowning including an extended scene revolving around an increasingly absurdist rendition of poetry. Everybody has a different tolerance for clowning. If you like the fools in Shakespeare, you will love this section. Personally, it leaves me cold. As the release this week of a movie version of Stephen King’s It proves, clowns make much more convincing serial killers than entertainers.
The most effective discussion in the show revolves around the paradox that we have names for over 1000 different types of pasta, yet lack the same amount of linguistic precision when discussing human tragedy. We do not have a name to describe a parent who has lost a child, but have no problem demarcating the various widths of noodles (capellini, spaghetti, bucatini, fettucine, pappardelle etc..)
Per Te is a work that arises out of tenderness and grief. It reminds us that our most important duty, wherever the winds of fate blow us, is to leave behind vivid memories for those who love us.
Per Te is showing at QPAC - Playhouse, as part of the Brisbane Festival until September 16.