The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s publicity seemed to say it all: “Following sold-out seasons around the world, Cirque de la Symphonie comes to Melbourne, bringing a host of international circus performers, including aerial flyers, acrobats, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, balancers, and strongmen, to the stage.”
Yet last night had so much more … it was one of those performances that leaves the audience excited and wishing it were all just starting again. Cirque is a thoroughly modern circus with the entertainment entirely provided by humans rather than animals. Performing with the MSO, the music was of course the thing, with the conductor in the role of the ringmaster, yet controlling the orchestra rather than the acrobats.
Not often is the conductor completely eclipsed by the performers but this was literally so several times, as performers swirled past him or over his head – or simply grabbed the audience’s attention with their daring acts. Benjamin Northey good-humouredly allowed himself to be involved in a quick costume change reprising one of the most spectacular acts of the night, leaving the orchestra to fend for itself until the very last notes.
However Northey’s pivotal role was of course the music, dealing with a demanding popular program, as acrobats and others positioned themselves above and around him and his orchestra, stealing the limelight with their tricks and comedy routines. They were so effective that it was surprising to note that there were only 10 Cirque performers – the full orchestra numbered perhaps eight times that number, Yet part of the magic of the night was that the orchestra did not swamp the circus performers even though there were usually only one or two on stage, And while the audience may have concentrated on the circus acts the music was always an intrinsic part of what was happening.
The MSO established its credentials from the outset, on stage for the opening act simply called Orchestra. This was Dvořák’s Carnival overture, its mercurial nature and variety a hint of what was to come as well as a showcase for many in the orchestra. It was immediately followed by a spectacular performance, Aerial Silks, to Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse macabre. Part of any top pole artist’s repertoire, this act is both beautiful and terrifying as it involves height and moves that appear to tie the artist up, secured only by ribbons. One minute she is flying at the end of a silk, the next sliding down at rapid speed. Dance macabre was therefore a perfect choice of accompaniment.
Quick Change provided an immediate and necessary comic relief as the Harlequin (the night’s funny-man) assisted his female partner in a rapid-fire sequence of costume changes. It was so cleverly done that it had all the feeling of a magic show trick. Next came more standard circus fare with the spinning cube and juggling rings, to music from Bizet’s Carmen. Similarly Hula Hoops which followed seemed the perfect act to accompany de Falla’s Ritual fire dance. As was the norm on the night musicians and acrobats joined to present a thoroughly satisfying performance, unique yet drawing on a centuries-old craft.
As if to prove its worth the orchestra returned solo for a performance of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride: Dance of the Comedians. More modern works rounded off the first half with Contortion to a piece by Adam Khachaturian and Aerial Straps suitably matched with Hook: Flight to Neverland by John Williams.
To say the second half brought more of the same is true although it had its own highlights. With the performance in the dark and the acts segueing at speed it was a reviewer’s nightmare as much as an audience member’s thrill. For instance, leader of the MSO, Dale Barthrop, had a very sweet solo which was recorded in my illegible notes – but where? And when did the circus artist support himself by using his topknot?
Dances in their infinite variety were memorable, with music from Swan Lake accompanying a magic act and another aerial duo, Offenbach’s Can Can used for the ribbon dance, and another impressive solo from the orchestra in its performance of Strauss’s Thunder And Lightning Polka. (This may be the moment to say that a note-by-note analysis of the orchestra’s performance is neither appropriate nor possible, as a program like this is all about the overall effect of the sound. This is not to suggest that the MSO was deficient in anyway at all. It was superb.)
However the central element of the night was of course the performance by Cirque. With all the thrills, the aerial displays, the dances and the laughs, the troupe left the most stunning performance for the last. To the entirely appropriate choice of Sibelius’s weighty Finlandia two men who might almost be sumo wrestlers engaged, not in combat, but in supporting each other in an increasing number of almost impossible situations, such as one supporting the other whose whole body was balancing on his head!
Even more memorable than their appearance – bronzed, in brief trunks – and their strength was the elemental nature of their act. It had a timeless quality to its deceptive simplicity, with both exhibiting a purity of line as they performed their extraordinary feats of balance. (Unusually for a review, we are sharing a video including this act filmed by Cirque with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra three years ago).
Tonight’s performance is sold out but perhaps the MSO could be persuaded to invite the visitors back for a longer season. There would be no shortage of an audience I am convinced!
The picture supplied by the MSO was taken by Daniel Aulsebrook.
smash and was the bastard ride
space and was the bastard bride