The secret police are knocking on Shostakovich’s door. Those three sharp, dissonant chords ring through the State theatre and jolt me to the core. ‘All is not well. Never relax. Never let your guard down. They will come for you, Dmitri, as they came for your friends.’ On stage, a man picks up an inanimate body and, with difficulty, drapes it across his shoulders. The prone woman, limbs askew, presses him towards the ground. He gathers a second body. His knees shudder. He gathers a third. His whole being is shaking now. Brittle, broken limbs emerge from every angle. His burden outweighs him. The dead pile up. The police knock again – those heart-stopping chords. And the audience applauds, congratulating the performer on his physical strength.
Listen: I feel that in writing about OPUS I am hovering dangerously close to a ‘stupid audience didn’t get it’ post and my respect for audiences is something that drives both my theatre and writing. I don’t want to write that they didn’t get it because I think that they did. Any ‘getting’ is valid.
You don’t have to know how many of Shostakovich’s friends were disappeared during the Stalinist purges. You don’t have to know how he lived in fear for years and how brave he was to continue writing his music, music that said again and again ‘all is not well. Something is rotten here.’ You don’t have to know this to feel for the twisted, juddering bodies onstage and to feel hear the urgent desperation in his music.
I think the incongruity I found between audience response and my own was because OPUS is more than a mix of genres: it is a mix of learned etiquettes: circus and classical music. I could feel Circa fighting against this. Their choreography deliberately distances itself from the ‘Ta-Daa’ moment, which is such a traditional part of the performer-audience interaction in circus. One image flowed into the next, working with the movements of the music. They endeavoured to create something that we process as complete entity, rather than a series of separate moments punctuated by our hands. Yet still, this is how it was punctuated.
A woman rises out of a sea of bodies. Rather than strike that ‘Ta-Daa’ pose, her arms claw at the air, as if she struggles against not only gravity but the inevitability of sinking back into the mass of people below. And applause. And that is fine. I keep telling myself that is fine…
But lay this image on the music of an incredibly brave political composer, who grieved through his music – grieved when it was still dangerous to do so – and I wonder if applause is adequate. Shostakovich survived the Stalinist purges and World War II. He survived and he wrote his 8th String Quartet in 1960 in the still-rubble strewn Dresden, dedicating the work to “victims of fascism and war”. The feared nighttime knocking still haunted him and those three sharp chords intrude again and again. … And “Bravo!” yells a man somewhere to my left.
Is it that I am more trained in classical music than in circus? Is this why I am preferencing my own polite, well-trained music audience response over that of the height-equals-applause audience? In doing this, am I trying to strip circus of its very circus-ness. Isn’t recognising and rejoicing in human possibility the very essence of this art? Certainly Circa retain spectacle and those dangerous, breath-catching moments. It was some of the most stunning circus I have ever seen and the Debussy String Quartet made me tear up multiple times. I just wonder whether audiences’ expectations and learnt behaviours are going to hold circus back from becoming a medium that transcends shock and awe.
Circus-makers are ready to transcend it: Circa’s Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz said in the program “I want (our work) to exist beyond words – an actual, powerful, seismic theatrical event that moves you, without you being able to say why.” The medium has become one of complexity, maturity and depth. But I feel there is still an echo of the crowd pressing into the freak show tent, unaware that the bearded lady is singing. What they are seeing has closed their ears to the possibility of beauty.
The ‘knocking’ starts at 12’36 in this recording. But listen at least from 6 minutes at because 6’18 begins one of the most heart-stopping motifs in 20th Century music. All production photos are by Justin Nicholas.
*Drunk Fleur got melodramatic with her note-taking.