Orchestrating wonder: Opus at the Melbourne Festival

A raucous and athletic circus with elegant chamber music. Do opposites clash? Opus is a fascinating collaboration between the French chamber music Debussy String Quartet and the Australian Circus troupe Circa. It was performed at the Melbourne Festival this weekend. In Opus, they dance.

Shostakovich’s quartet whirls and changes, traveling tumultuous, unpredictable paths as the performers leap, bound, and scream across the stage in equal measure. The meeting was fruitful.

What makes spectacle so spectacular?

Opus was a show that even this skeptic found compelling. The acrobatics, of course, were amazing. It was not the acrobatics that caught me by surprise.

The small moments, more than the undeniably virtuosic feats of gymnastics, were what really caught my attention. The little surprises, the sleights. The delicate images are created and then deconstructed.

After choreographic chaos on stage, the beauty of a brief, small embrace. A laugh that sticks in your throat. The man who runs madly away from a cloud or wave of water that is created in front of your eyes using only fabric and lights. With a swell of strings, 14 performers are on stage in an instant.

How did the performers appear just now on stage? Where do one’s body and another’s begin?

Opus is full of a thousand stories and a thousand moments that are like this. The frustration is gnawing and clawing, the sense of being trapped. Standing at the edge of a cliff with fear and trepidation. A collapse into exhaustion.

As I watched the moments unfold, it reminded me of what makes this type of spectacle so special. It’s magic. Watching the performers prepare for their next acrobatic act is like magic. You know what to expect, and as you prepare yourself and calculate how it could be possible, you begin to understand.

You may feel confident or smug about your abilities. You can feel it as the music builds. Then they fall or leap or are thrown halfway across the stage, and you can’t help but gasp.

They have made the impossible possible. They have made it seem impossible to do the impossible.

An expectation accompanies everyday life. There is an expectation that the world will follow some logic or rules. We go to spectacles, to the circus, to remind ourselves that imagination can be stronger than reality.

Re-investigate, not just collaborate.

The art world has long understood the creative potential of interdisciplinarity. In the past century, distinct art forms have collided with other disciplines and combined to create hybrid styles that defy classification. A collaboration between musicians, dancers, and other performers is not a great achievement in itself.

In the West, musicians are usually seated in the orchestra pit when they perform live at operas, ballets, musicals, and circuses. This space is called an orchestra pit because it is below the stage. The audience is instructed to ignore musicians as much as they can.

The Debussy String Quartet’s collaboration with Circa in Opus was not just a collaboration of art forms but also a re-examination of the relationship between the stage, the body, the instrument, and the audience.

Yaron Lifschitz, the director and choreographer for Opus, created a world of possibilities when he placed the four musicians in the middle of the circus action. The music and the circus performance become a dialogue between the performer and the musician. As bows bounce, they sway and move like trapeze artists’ limbs.

As musicians, their bodies also become part of the picture, whether they are seated, standing, blindfolded, or carried around the space. The circus performers’ technical calls do not diminish the beauty of the music but rather enhance its significance.

Lifschitz does not adhere to a nostalgic aesthetic of symmetry, coherence, or linearity. The focus is always split. The viola gets in the way. Twelve performers leap, crash, and flip across the stage, and while upstage right, something very quiet happens. Conventions are not followed. The performers are facing us. The piece is not finished yet, but the musician is led offstage. The challenge is offered.

What do you know about the circus? What about chamber music? How to watch a show? Opus is an amazing discovery.

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