Review from: The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Canada; 9th November, 2018
This is not the first time that Circa, the touring, Brisbane-based group led by artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, have staged a show here in Toronto, but it is my first time experiencing one of the company’s productions. Like so many others from the contemporary circus community in this city, I want to see more international groups bring their productions here. This is the one and only night that Toronto patrons will have a chance to see Humans, presented as part of Civic Theatres Toronto 2018/2019 Dance Collection, but there are several empty seats as I look around the theatre. This disheartens me. Toronto is an arts hub, home to the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company, and musical theatre powerhouse, Mirvish Productions, but circus continues to struggle to win the hearts and minds of arts patrons or gain any serious recognition.
Will Humans be able to convince this audience that circus can be something other than a series of fantastical feats haphazardly strung together to make you gasp? Will it connect with us or share a narrative that evokes an emotional response?
The lights are up in Toronto’s Sony Centre for the Performing Arts when I notice the first performer on stage. She begins to undress, removing her street clothes and revealing her circus attire: a shiny, high-waisted lycra short and bra set, topped with a sheer black top, which she knots in the front. The stripped down costume design, the work of Libby McDonnell, is indicative of the minimalism evident in the stage design and use of apparatus throughout the show. The introduction is so unintrusive that most of the audience are still milling and chatting while other performers enter the stage. I continue to watch quietly. It isn’t until a woman sitting in front of me stands and walks to the stage that I realize the performers had been sitting in the audience all along. Just one of us humans.
Eventually the lights dim and the music begins. The physicality of Humans is striking from the outset. The 10 performers, five women and five men, explore each other’s bodies through contortion, hand balancing, and hand-to-hand acrobatics. Heads are stepping stones, bodies become belts to be worn, and wheels to be rolled across others. Some bodies stand strong, as demonstrated by Nathan Boyle, who balances five of his fellow cast members on his broad shoulders. Others seem eerily malleable, like Kimberly O’Brien, who seems to have the ability to be sculpted and re-sculpted, twisted into one seemingly-impossible position after another.
Humans explores our very nature through movement and music for the entirety of its 70-minute runtime. There are tender moments, one cast member gently cradling another. There are joyful moments, like when all 10 cast members join on stage, all trying (and hilariously failing) to lick their own elbows. They explore human sexuality, making light of the fact that many hand-to-hand acrobatic movements end with one partner’s head buried in very intimate locales of the other. At times performers are literally building each other up into 2-high and 3-high towers, and at other times they physically stand on one another, holding each other down. There are moments of quiet solitude mixed with the chaos of bodies leaping over and through one another. Propping each other up and pushing each other aside.
The aerial performances are both minimal and beautiful. Cecilia Martin’s dance trapeze act mimics the frantic pace of the fiddle music that accompanies it. Just when you think she has completed her last elbow roll, her final back balance, she flips and climbs the lines, wrapping and dropping into another dynamic turn. Bridie Hooper, a graduate of Montreal’s École Nationale de Cirque, flanked by two of her male cast members, demonstrates she is as strong as she is flexible with a powerful straps act, but it is her contortion work that draws gasps and audience admiration.
As the cast returns to the stage after the finale, the crowd leaps to their feet in a standing ovation. It seems as though the stripped-down fragility on display this evening has made an impact. As I leave the theatre, I can only hope that those here tonight spread the word far and wide throughout the city that contemporary circus is an artistic force, deserving of the recognition and respect of the Toronto arts patrons.