World-renowned string quartet Quatuor Debussy and Australian contemporary circus troupe Circa collaborated to perform a moving choreography to the music of Shostakovich—the beloved 20th century composer who toed the line between dissidence and devotion in Stalinist Russia. Under Stalin, the state demanded that art created glorified Stalin and his cause. Artists whose works criticized this cause were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. In a time when art was a medium for propaganda, Shostakovich found a way to express the harsh reality through his music. His work performed a balancing act between celebrating Soviet Russian themes, creating a modern composition style, and denouncing the Tsarist and Nazi regimes.
Circa’s Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz illustrates this balancing act by the various moods that occur throughout the performance. The show opens on a dark stage. The string players walk across and begin the wailing lines of the Elegy while an acrobat sways his body above the ground on aerial tissues. Two performers lift up the black cloth on the stage floor revealing the rest of the troupe lying perfectly still. From that moment onwards, the scene comes alive. The acrobats perform incredible feats interwoven with expressive movements. According to Lifschitz, “Circus provides a means of telling stories with no narrative.” Without an overt story arc, we understand that this performance explores the many faces of Shostakovich and his struggle to create art during such tumultuous times.
The music and choreography explore this story by balancing between light and dark, the individual and the group, and order and chaos. For example, the costume change from severe soviet-inspired outfits to merely black shorts and leotards evokes Shostakovich’s attempt to defy socialist realism -— the art propaganda of the Soviet Union -— in favour of formalism -— a modern approach to musical composition in which the music’s derives its meaning from its form. The final tableau, resembling music notes on a ledger, echoes this formalism. Lifschitz also honours Shostakovich’s use of the grotesque in his music to simultaneously evoke horror and sympathy, a perfect descriptor for the reality of the Soviet Union. The minimalist scenery, Daliesque tableaus, and the recurring acrobat who crawls across the stage with her foot bent backwards so that her toes grip her forehead, express the grotesque to convey Shostakovich’s similarly horrific reality.
As the acrobats and musicians took their final bows, the audience in the TOHU theatre leapt to their feet to give them a standing ovation. Through gravity-defying acrobatics, complex choreography, and soulful musicianship Opus celebrated a composer who used his art as a tool to triumph over evil.
The show runs till November 26. More information HERE.