In this collaboration with Indian acrobats, the Brisbane-based art circus group Circa, led by Yaron Lifschitz, have incorporated the practice of mallakhamb, a form of acrobatics that dates back to the 12th century and is based on rope and pole work, and together they have made a thing of beauty on the borders between acrobatics and a dance, that uses the calligraphy of the body to create meaning and narrative.
Besides the art, the old-fashioned circus skills and bravery on display are of a high order: it was a spectacle that brought childlike gasps and cries of appreciation and finally a standing ovation from from the largely middle-aged audience at the Playhouse. (There were almost no children, which seemed sad: it is definitely an all-ages show.)
The evening is divided into three parts. The first, Axis, opens by suggesting a trip to India — jet noises on the soundtrack, city noises and Indian voices talking mysticism and mobile phones. There is a sense of the crowds and communality of India: the performers pull each other across the stage, roll along the floor in a neverending flow of bodies and leap over each other, with duos emerging to sway together in Indian dance rhythms and then segue into their routines: one highlight was five people standing on the shoulders of one man; another had a woman standing one-legged on the head of a man himself standing on the shoulders of a third performer.
Where the first piece is about groups and relationships and movement, the second, … of a turning world emphasises solitude and interiority and stillness. On the left Ustav Lal plays raga-inspired piano — the Western instrument bringing out the affinities between the Indian musical genre and modernist classical idioms — while the women appear on the darkened stage bearing candles: they then perform rope acrobatics, singly or in pairs, under spot lights. The colour scheme and costumes (black sports bras and compression pants), the smoky atmosphere, are all more redolent of German cabaret than anything one might associate with the subcontinent.
There were moments when it felt as if Circa and their Indian collaborators are in touch with the divine.
The third piece, on the other hand, Aks (the Hindi for reflection) returns to the rhythms of the group, or more exactly to doubling and mirroring and intimations of sexual conflict. An acrobat performs cartwheels and forward rolls noisily, deliberately playing up his heavy landings, while up the back another acrobat performs the same tricks noiselessly, not making a sound however forcefully his feet hits the stage. And there is room for self-parody, with a male and female acrobat doing a routine including deliberate awkwardness, limbs tangled uncomfortably and feet jammed in the face.
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But it is in this section that traditional mallakhamb practice is now given prominence: the acrobats now are shirtless, four wooden poles across the stage for the Indian acrobats to do their thing with: somersaulting and catching the pole between their legs, sitting atop with one leg folded behind their head; all four of the men and the two women arranged on one pole with their arms outstretched, Shiva-like. The control and precision are breathtaking. It might seem a little over the top to come out and say so, but there were moments when it felt as if Circa and their Indian collaborators are in touch with the divine.
READ CIRCA’S YARON LIFSCHITZ ON ARTS FUNDED BY A ‘GOVERNMENT ENTRENCHED OLIGARCHY OF PRIVILEGE’ HERE