Opening night at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Sacre by Circa began in almost total blackout, and I absolutely love it when a choreographer gives the audience a chance to play along in their own imagination right from the beginning. Before we were able to make out what was happening, or how it would happen, we were given the space visually and in some ways, emotionally, to insert our own memories and feelings towards darkness, and thus towards the performers themselves. Through its intended design of 7min in a complete void, including exit signs and aisle lighting, the audience was drawn into the otherworldly music of Philippe Bachman. We hear synthesized bass drum patterns and the resonance of a wood instrument that lie somewhere between human voice and percussion, and it’s that mysterious alienation that invites you in. The 65min piece began slowly, with the performers caressing and lifting one another in silhouetted lighting by the brilliant Veronique Benett, as we saw one impressive duet after the other. Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz gave us permission to build a relationship with this performance directly from the start, and it was mystifying, intriguing, and captivating. I’ll admit that as an audience member who’s been away from the traditional theater performances of pre-covid for far too long, Circa gave the dreamers something to dream about.

Jarrod Takle, Daniel O'Brien, Kimberley O'Brien, and Marty Evans in "Sacre" by Circa - Photo by Pedro Greig

Jarrod Takle, Daniel O’Brien, Kimberley O’Brien, and Marty Evans in “Sacre” by Circa – Photo by Pedro Greig

For all its raw and dangerous movement as a modern day circus, Sacre portrayed a sensitivity and tenderness that could be found at any ballet or modern dance experience. The acrobats performed impressive lifts that displayed not only their physical strength but a vulnerability in ancient motifs. With the men in black pants and suit jackets, and the women in black skirts and quarter length leotards, the ensemble members would climb, swing, and transfer weight balance while catching each other with the simple gesture of a hand shake. In several moments, we see as many as three acrobats standing on the shoulders of another creating a totem pole effect. And with Benett’s mysterious lighting of only stark white spotlights carefully curated across the staging and direction of Lifshitz, we see shadowed faces and figures towering above us…and it brings up a primitive feeling of uncertain familiarity. Throughout the entire performance we see posture and posing reminiscent of deities as they would be depicted in scripture or in story, in the outline of the acrobats positioning on stage. A handstand turns into a backbend, and with one lift they’re spinning in air and being caught by someone clear across stage in a matter of seconds, as if each body were a sacrifice to the unpredictability of falling and never being caught. Not only was it impressive that any human, circus performer or not, could create such towering climbs, but the real hold your breath moments were in the safe dismantling from such heights. With each totem, was a conquer, and with each moment of deconstruction Circa gave us team work, togetherness, and most importantly humility. In the air, on top of shoulders, they were gods, but on the ground, balancing shoulder to shoulder, we saw humanity and family on stage. Lifshitz writes, “…the possibility wave collapses to the fate of a single group, this one, here. The skills grow, the physical intensity rises. A dangerous collective will, drives us forward in search of sacrifice in search of blood.”

Circa Ensemble in "Sacre" - Photo by Pedro Greig

Circa Ensemble in “Sacre” – Photo by Pedro Greig

Just when I think it couldn’t get better, just when I think I’ve found the heart of Circa, I hear the familiar bassoon of Igor Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring. It knocks you over with subtle swooning, and any dancer, movement artist, performance goer alike will recognize the bellowing call of that bassoon. It is extremely brave, borderline risky, to incorporate Rite of Spring after Pina Bausch first created her greatest and seminal piece of work “Rite of Spring”  in 1975 on Tanztheater Wuppertal. As an audience member familiar with Bausch, the thought of how any one company could possibly match that rush of terror seems impossible. But when I see Kimberley O’Brien, Georgia Webb, and Christina Zauner come out in short black satin spaghetti strap dresses, a go to article of clothing for Pina, I immediately knew that Circa was paying homage to a classic piece of dance/theater work, and in some ways reviving it. A brilliant reprise by costume designer Libby McDonnell, who’s familiarity with dance history stems from her graduate degree. One of my favorite moments of Sacre was the three women standing on one side of the stage, facing three men on the other. O’Brien, Webb, and Zauner ran towards their partners, thrust themselves parallel to the floor in the air, and were caught by the torso and carried. While this moment may have been forgettable by most, it was the contrast of harsh trumpets, flutes and trombones with deliberate and steady holding that struck. The chosen act to wander, to carry something precious amongst chaos and peril, was so familiar in the deepest parts of human nature. Lifshitz writes, “I love the music, but my problem was I never felt anyone was actually going to die…Circus can change that. It can take us to the edge.”

Jarrod Takle in "Sacre" by Circa - Photo by Pedro Greig

Jarrod Takle in “Sacre” by Circa – Photo by Pedro Greig

With mind bending acrobatics, Fran Alvarez, Marty Evans, Sam Letch, Hamish McCourty, Daniel O’Brien, Kimberley O’Brien, Jarrod Takle, Luke Thomas, Georgia Webb, and Christina Zauner had the entire audience physically gasping and clapping, as if we were seeing a moving picture in 1914 for the first time. Sacre is a performance of its generation, defying new techniques and new approaches to a traditional circus performance. Perhaps, deep down, what I love most about Sacre by Circa, was the company’s ability to bring out my own will to survive. Not as a lone animal fending for myself, but with others, for whom I have the ability to lean on. All I need to do is jump and enjoy the fall. The heart of humanity, for all it’s dangerous trickery will catch those who’ve made the sacrifice.

To learn more about Circa, please visit their website.

To learn more about The Broad Stage, please visit their website.

Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Rhiannon Cave-Walker, Hamish McCourty, Georgia Webb, Daniel O’Brien, and Kimberley O’Brien in Sacre by Circa – Photo by Pedro Greig