Without Elephants and Trapezes, Circa Turns Circus Into an Art Form

Circa is a circus that pushes the boundaries of the art form. In a dozen years, the Australia-based company has performed in 33 countries on six continents. No animals, no trapeze acts, no Beatles music...and yet the group has carved out for itself a unique place in the entertainment world.

2015-11-10-1447181100-325085-1611CircaOpusCreditJustinNicholas.jpg Photo Credit Justin Nicholas

Would you believe...a circus set to Shostakovich? Or even Monteverdi? It's clearly different from anything the world has ever seen.

Yaron Lifschitz, the founder and director, took time away from creating five (count 'em five) new circus pieces to talk with me about why he approaches circus the way he does.

Photo Credit Justin Nicholas

Michael: How did you find the courage to run away and join the circus?

Yaron: Well, I got bitten by the theatre bug. I loved the experience of being at theatre and seeing work on stage. But I failed miserably as a theatre director. I just didn't really like stories and acting very much. The thing that appealed to me was the excitement and the immediacy and the presence of what happens in theatre, and that seemed to be to be captured best by the circus.

Michael: In a world of Barnum and Bailey and Cirque de Soleil, how do you find your own niche?

Yaron: We take circus and we pull it apart and we rethink it as a contemporary art form. We've got no aspirations to be huge or do anything too flashy.

Michael: What is the essence of circus for you?

Yaron: Let it be known that I would love an elephant. I've long since been wanting to grab one! I'm primarily really interested in human bodies, and for me, bodies are the sight of meaning in the theatre. It's why I go to the theatre. It's the people. That's where our focus is, and there's no limit on the number of combinations of things people seem able to make with each other, the things they can do, the skills. So then we use some apparatus, trapeze, hula hoops, ropes. But it all goes, essentially, into a kind of choreographed circus.

You come to the theatre to be unexpectedly moved and connected with bodies that somehow surpass their virtuosity and hit some kind of artery of emotion. The ideal for the circus show is to make you feel emotion that you didn't know, that you don't have words for.

Michael: You don't need all those additional layers--three rings, acrobats, and so on.

Yaron: Well, that's the hope. There are people who genuinely love the big spectacle and the elephants, and that's great. It's not my particular aesthetic.

Michael: If you had an elephant, how would the elephant fit into your show?

Yaron: Maybe it would have a beautiful way of moving. If I were going to put an elephant on stage, I would want to increase the humanity in the way we relate to him. Animals are a really old school aspect of contemporary circus. And I'd love to work with animals and have them entertain in an interesting way. Of course, I'm a vegetarian. I don't eat meat. There are ethical issues around working with animals, of course, but there would also be a real challenge. Why can't we have animals in contemporary circus? I think is a really valid question.

Michael: Your aspirations for circus as an art form are boundless.

Yaron: There's a great power and dignity to people doing extreme things with integrity and with art. When I looked around the circus landscape, I saw a world that was kind of fooling people. Young people who were happy to use the best, most physically able time of their lives to work at a circus company. And most of what I saw was them entertaining people. And I thought that was a terrible waste.

Now, there's nothing wrong with entertainment. It's good. We all like it. But if that's the limit of what we strive for, then we are diminishing what we can achieve, what our aspirations are, and what our possibilities are. I thought it's really important that the circus sees itself as an art form, and it strives for the depth and the connectivity, and also the challenges that great art poses. I want to see if circus can make art.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Circa Opus with Quatuor Debussy

November 13-15 at the Citi Shubert Theatre. Tickets: http://celebrityseries.org/circa