Based in Brisbane, Australia, Circa Contemporary Circus is considered one of the world’s leading performance companies. Under the direction of Yaron Lifschitz, the company has led the way in demonstrating how fusing together movement, dance, theatre and circus can inspire the creation of artistic concert works. Circa Contemporary Circus has been presented in over 40 countries including regular appearances presented in New York, London, Berlin and Montreal as well as major Australian Festivals.

On May 30, 2019, Santa Ana Sites, founded by Allen Moon, presented the U.S. Premiere of CIRCA: What Will Have Been at the oldest operating theater in California, The Yost Theatre. Yes, this circus-style work was filled with acrobatic and aerial feats, but what it possessed that is so often lacking in such programs was a deep expression of humanity. It had heart, it was moving, and it had humor. Most importantly, however, it artfully and warmly expressed the complexities of human relationships. Unlike Cirque de Soleil, What Will Have Been was performed on an almost bare stage, with only the necessary apparatuses and beautiful black and white, and sometimes blue lighting designed by Jason Organ. The entire cast included Hamish McCourty, Daniel O’Brien and Kimberly O’Brien dressed in simple but elegant black and white costumes by Libby McDonnell, and violinist Lachlan O’Donnell performing onstage in several of the sections.

Yaron Lifschitz, along with the Circa Ensemble, has created a true gem within the jump and tumble genre of the circus. Featuring compositions by Philip Glass and Bach, the work opened with the three performers simply walking, stopping to create brief tableaux of people almost embracing, but not actually touching one another. This ended with two canvas aerial straps descending and Kimberly O’Brien placing her hand into one of the loops. She did not rush into showing off her talents, but slowly began to turn while lying at an angle with her feet planted in one spot. Her eyes only focused on violinist O’Donnell as she passed him, and it felt like a dream instead of the beginning of an aerial performance. O’Brien did eventually begin to rise and perform amazing feats while supported by the straps, but the ambience of sadness that she originally created continued throughout the section and into how she returned to the floor. As the straps rose, leaving O’Brien behind, a look of loss came across her face.

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Circa Contemporary Circus - What Will Have Been - Photo by Andy Phillipson

The next section involved acrobatic tumbling and lifts, rich with detached tenderness; the three performers stopping to look at one another with a sense of distant recognition. Daniel O’Brien began simple spiraling hand gestures that escalated into acrobatic feats that continued the rotating movement theme. The two men, O’Brien and McCourty demonstrated competitiveness, rivalry and bonding via gravity defying lifts, tumbles and humorous attempts at aborting the other’s display of prowess. Forward and backward flips landed purposefully with a smack or thud again the floor, or another man’s backward flip alit softly on his chest and rolled gently downward until he lay prone.

Kimberly O’Brien and McCourty performed an extraordinary duet of strength and agility while expressing the dynamics of a complex relationship between a man and woman. He wanted control while she lovingly resisted.

One of the highlights was a section performed by Daniel O’Brien with two black handstand canes. O’Brien began by circling the medium sized canes, and alternating walks with wonderfully smooth and quiet slides. He inspected their dimensions and boundaries by moving through and around them before he mounted the apparatus. Here again, it was not simply a show of balance, strength and flexibility, but O’Brien transformed the two handstand canes into a stationary creature whose existence had a purpose. This was a duet, not simply a balancing act.

Kimberly O’Brien and McCourty joined together again; this time on top of the handstand canes. It was a different type of relationship that developed here. It felt like one of co-dependency, each person unable to exist without the other. They display of balance on those narrow objects while O’Brien was lifted and manipulated by McCourty was nothing short of amazing. Adding to the sometimes-humorous moments within this duet were the lyrics of Pale Blue Eyes, written and sung by Lou Reed and performed by Velvet Underground.

A trapeze-like apparatus was introduced and with it some incredible feats performed by all three performers.  The trapeze was used as a vehicle of challenge between the two men and a narrow seat for them to include lifts with Kimberly O’Brien. The two men performed a tense, but amazing duet connected first by a large loop and the by a very small rubber one that fit tightly around their necks. This section was a tad scary, as I worried for their physical safety.

The work concluded with a wonderful display of bodies flying through space, triple high shoulder stands and touching moments of connections. Unlike the opening tableaux, however, the last image we were left with in What Will Have Been as the three humans together in a loving embrace.

I will admit that I was hesitant to go to see a company whose name is Circa Contemporary Circus. I expected an evening filled with human tricks. Instead, I left the theater with a full heart and hope for the future.

For more information about Circa Contemporary Circus, click here.

For more information about Santa Ana Sites, click here.

To find out more about the Yost Theatre, click here.