Georgina Perrott reviews Depart, a part of LIFT festival which took place at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park between June 16th and June 26th. Circa are a internationally acclaimed circus company from Australia.
Amidst the architecture of crumbling, sunken graves framed by tendrils of ivy, wild garlic and gnarled trees reaching skyward, a group of people have gathered to bear witness to a plethora of ethereal performances submerged in the Victorian cemetery. Placing their trust in hosts carrying lanterns to light their path, they follow strangers into the unknown, perhaps symbolic of the unknown nature of life and death. Some hesitate, holding back at junctions to wait for the people they came with, whilst others boldly tread the muddy paths, brushing branches out of their way, eager to see the next mortals in incandescent costume.
“Depart with care…”
It is not often that a performance concerned with death can make us feel so alive, however walking along the winding trails of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park to the sounds of haunting choirs and the droplets of rain falling through the trees, the senses are awakened. The audience relax into the new environment that Circa and Lift Festival have created. The couple, who at the beginning were reluctant to leave each other’s sides, slowly forget that the other is there as they watch dancers twirl from ropes in the trees above them. The family so concerned with rustling rain ponchos from their entrance into the wood, are spell-bound by a man who spins a large hoop fully under his control; their rustles becoming a part of the sound score. This is a work that tunes in to the senses of the individual, rendering them silent and open to their environment by the end of the work.
“…walk with silence…”
Each performance includes an element of suspense; dancers suspended from trees, from poles, and in hoops. It creates a feeling of magic at play in the woods, and as we journey on through the dark, turning left and right but never looking back, it feels as though we are suspended in time, or perhaps a different world to that of which we know.
Despite the feeling of light and hope, that the piece evokes in an audience expecting to be scared witless, there are darker moments that remind us that we are still in a place of the dead. One performance culminates in a dancer hanging rigidly from her feet, revolving eerily as the audience must walk past to continue the trail. The sharp, weighty dynamic in which she falls consolidating the finality we feel as it happens. Another moment sees a dancer, suspended by straps from her feet and her mouth, turning wildly, exhausting the movement until it becomes too much effort. Compared to the stillness of the graves lit up below her, she does not seem to be resting in peace, but rather just restless.
“…stay with the group…”
I must admit now that this review is of a different nature to others I have written. This is because over the last couple of weeks I have been one in a group of people volunteering to guide the audience for five performances. Having seen the various elements of the performance five times, I have had time to digest and reflect on them, and I have seen different versions due to weather – Circa were prepared for a British summer. Writing this I have realised that the audience were part of the performance themselves, and that each audience member will have experienced the show differently. Moments where people interacted held the most significance; whether that be a performer taking the hand of an audience member and leading them through the crowd, or two strangers in the audience making eye contact, silently acknowledging the beauty of what they were seeing.
As the natural light fades the audience become quieter, and as the finale approaches the paths have become so dark that the audience must keep up with the strangers in front of them or face losing their way. As my group lurches from the darkness, the yellow illuminations of guiding lanterns can be seen in the distance. As we near a cross-road in the path, there are quiet gasps at the coincidental meeting of three audience groups at the same time. The groups merge and become a mass of bodies walking towards a bright flood light that welcomes them to the big clearing in which a long raised stage is adorned by the spectral performers they have met along their journey.
“…do not look back.”
The finale is an occasion of beauty, in many senses of the word, for beauty is hard to define or pin down. Circa are beautiful in the moments that cause breath to catch in my chest. Dancers are thrown high into the air and caught in outstretched positions; buoyant in the arms of a man, standing on the shoulders of a man, who stood on the shoulders of a third man below him. This is as close to flying as we will get with out the aid of industrial propellers. They are beautiful in the moments of symbolic simplicity; a whole line of dancers trying to see through another’s hands, left us questioning what they are looking for. Perhaps they are each looking for something different, as each of us do in our own lives. Perhaps it is a physical representation of not knowing what lays before us, but also not looking back.
Depart is an experience, more so than many performances watched from the theatre stalls. The audience become performers, they make their own choices, based on feelings they are made to feel from the performers and the environment. As well as seeing and hearing the intended components of the performance, such as the haunting sounds of the shrouded choir, and hypnotic, skilled circus performances; they are exposed to other elements. The sounds of birds in the trees, of the DLR shuttling by, of squelching mud, the smell of wet ground and wild garlic, and the touch of someone’s coat against their hand, or of a stinging nettle against their shins. Overwhelmed with assurances of life in a place supposedly occupied by death, Circa‘s power is in their ability to make us aware of the smaller nuances of life, whilst allowing us to gawk in wonder at their skill and grace.
As this is a contemplation of my own experience as part of Depart, I cannot leave out the fact that a number of people with great minds, vision and experience came together to create Depart. Having experienced the show five times, I have realised that there is something about togetherness – the performers and the audience experiencing something magical simultaneously, the audience relying on strangers to guide them through the dark, and an appreciation of those people, the beautiful surroundings and the work that has been put in.
In a time where the country seems divided I would like to recognise the importance of togetherness, of making sure the people around you know that they are valued and safe. Having met and worked with a number of the team, I would like to acknowledge the value of its diversity. It is important to realise the importance of valuing difference in backgrounds and experiences, especially at a time when there are groups of people aiming to quell those differences.