Like Devils Over an Open Flame: “Sacre” by Circa

Circa performers in “Sacre.” O Robert Torres for CSB

Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Commissioned by Merrigong Theatre Company.
Co-produced by La Comete
Created by Yaron Lifschitz and the Circa Ensemble
Based on Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Music by Philippe Bachman & Igor Stravinsky
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz

Feb. 9-11, 2023
Boch Center Shubert Theatre
265 Tremont St
Boston, MA 02116

Review by Kitty Drexel

Production warning: This production uses theatrical haze, smoke, and strobe effects. There are sections where the music will be loud.

Boston, MA — Circa contemporary circus’ Sacre is to the circus what Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) is to classical music. History has refined their cultural significance. Neither are intended for children or the faint of heart. 

The gatekeepers of classical music remember the May 29th, 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for its violent riot at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. While there are no official accounts, personal accounts from opera composer Giacomo Puccini and Le Figaro critic, composer, and musicologist Henri Quittard (whose infamy lives on to this day), described the production in terms of its barbarism and inelegance. 

From descriptions in articles about the riot, it sounds like the cliques dividing the audience were itching for a fight. It wasn’t a matter of why but a matter of when. Some things will never change: people take their art seriously.

The Rite of Spring created a stir amongst the audience. Music historians tells us audience members were pre-armed with rotten vegetables for throwing at the stage to express their dislike of the performance. Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky’s staging was too modern, too primitive. Stravinsky’s music was atonal and also too modern for the audience’s genteel ears. 

Circa’s performance style in no way resembles Cirque du Soleil. They are a contemporary circus ensemble that embraces the new wave style of extreme physicality in performance. Make no mistake, Circa’s Sacre is extreme. They are the Olympic athletes of circus performers.  

Sacre opened on a dark stage with only a central spotlight facing down onto the center of the stage. The ensemble was swathed in shadow and dressed in black. They moved to Philippe Bachman’s spare composition in parallel and opposing grid tracks across the stage. I realized, Sacre is Viewpoints technique (were that their origin) expressed across a chiaroscuro landscape. 

They were exploring their space, their relationships to each other the way actors would in Viewpoints training. Circa takes it beyond the scope of Bogart and Landau’s teaching. Circa hit the air running, flying, leaping, hovering, swooping. 

Sacre had walking human pyramids, three-person lifts, elements, of jazz, modern, and, briefly, swing dancing. The ensemble takes direct inspiration from descriptions of Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography.

As recalled in this Verge article, Nijinsky’s choreography was “bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice.” The ensemble shook like quakers at a prayer meeting and leapt like devils over an open flame. They hurled themselves into each other’s arms through the air and across the stage like bales of hay off a truck bed.

A dancer would tenderly caress another dancer’s arm, or side. Their partner would caress them back… Only to pick them up and whip them into the air like a Nerf football. The ensemble is so ripped that they soar like one too and land into another ensemble member’s arms. 

Sacre is impressive, it’s fast and it’s overwhelming. After watching long enough, the ensembles’ performances blend into each other. It’s easier to just let the performance happen to your eyes. Sacre comes around again. It slaps.

Sacre by Circa (Trailer) from Circa Contemporary Circus on Vimeo.

Celebrity Series of Boston helpfully put-up posters that stated “This production uses theatrical haze, smoke, and strobe effects. There are sections where the music will be loud.” These warnings are on the ticket site, but it was helpful to have them in the building as a reminder. 

The haze and smoke were thick like classroom chalk dust. It created enough of change that we’re questioning whether there is a change in the chemicals regularly used in smoke and haze production. (Or are we old people now? Is it both?) Just as we regularly bring earplugs with us just in case, we’ll also be bringing cough drops just in case, too. 

Performance running time is 65 minutes, without intermission. Circa recommends this performance for ages 12 and up.

Celebrity Series of Boston next presents Jason Moran and the Big Bandwagon on February at 8PM at the Berklee Performance Center. The next series dance performance is by Paul Taylor Dance Company on April 14 at the Shubert Theatre at 8PM. 

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