Dance? Circus? All of that and more in Circa’s ‘Ritorno’ at Cal Performances
February 5, 2018
Cal Performances has favored the booking of uncategorizable entertainments this season. On Saturday, Feb. 3, at Zellerbach Hall, it came up with a doozy.
“Il Ritorno,” a creation of Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus, can be judged an acrobatic tour de force, a circus act, a modern dance essay and an homage to one of the greatest and earliest operas, Claudio Monteverdi’s 1640 “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” (Ulysses’ Return to his Homeland). Or, all of the above. Whatever you call “Il Ritorno,” it’s a true original, a captivating 75-minute trip through the unique sensibility of creator Yaron Lifschitz, with help from Quincy Grant and the members of the ensemble. Circa visited Berkeley three seasons back, but the current presentation is a lot more compelling.
At the start, the seven fearless performers are lit starkly against a gray, paneled wall, suggesting a European sculpture park come to life (I thought of Vigeland in Oslo). The cast, in monochrome costumes, slowly comes to life, with achingly slow backbends and knees that ominously buckle under torsos. On the other side of the stage, a four-person musical consort, ably directed by Natalie Murray-Beale, plays four key vocal and orchestral excerpts from the opera, spiced with effective electronics.
If there’s a narrative element here, it’s drawn from “The Odyssey.” Ulysses struggles with manifold obstacles to return to Ithaca after 20 years abroad; wife Penelope fends off suitors, convinced he will come back, and not quite believing it when he does. The couple’s plight was made eloquent by baritone Benedict Nelson and the stylish Australian mezzo-soprano, Kate Howden.
Meanwhile, the ensemble delivers an acrobatic display that elicits wonder and prompts more than a few heart-stopping moments from the audience. They flip across the Zellerbach stage, virtually dance, while hanging from trapezes and ropes, thrill with precarious balances (a triple decker on shoulders of steel is a showstopper) and arrange themselves in towering patterns that suggest one of Escoffier’s elaborate wedding cakes. The wonder is that “Il Ritorno” at times seems uncommonly musical, even organic. Circa may be a circus act, but it leaves elephants and clowns on unicycles far behind in its quest for humanity.
Although cleaving the ether is standard with this troupe, some of the more affecting moments embrace gravity. Near the end, Monteverdi’s Penelope voices her dilemma, while a woman, clad in a dress that recalls Martha Graham’s costume for “Lamentation,” swivels, pivots and rages, hair flying. It’s the most affecting moment in the piece. Then, comes a procession across the stage, as two entwined bodies roll through space.
In his program note, Lifschitz references Primo Levi’s return from Auschwitz and the millions of displaced refugees in our contemporary world. You may agree or not, but you can’t deny the power of the closing tableau, as all seven performers turn their backs to us and, motionless, face the confining wall. The moment lasts a small eternity and we all share it.
Original article can be found here