What Makes Us Humans? Yaron Lifschitz on Contemporary Circus
Jaw-droppingly impressive in its physicality, Circa Contemporary Circus pushes the boundaries of circus arts, exploring the expressive possibilities of the human body at its extremes. Its latest work, Humans, is presented in partnership with the Annenberg Center Live and NextMove Dance as part of the 2018 Fringe Festival. FringeArts talked to Yaron Lifschitz, artistic director of the Australian circus troupe, about the heart-stopping work.
FringeArts: “Humans” is a beautifully universal title. What inspired it and made it fitting for the show?
Yaron Lifschitz: I was sitting at my desk and I’d just completed the arrangement to create a show for the Sydney Festival, and I’d called it my Untitled Show and I didn’t really know what it was about. I thought what interested me most was the way in which humans move, groove, pulse, beat with rhythm through them, and how this kind of connects us as a species, maybe it defines us, and yet this works against the static nature of much of acrobatic form. So the idea of what can make human the work we do—what can make it more intensely human and present—became the core idea of the show, and the title just sprung into my head. And then of course it’s such a beautiful title, and thinking about books like Sapien and Homo Deus and thinking about some of the contemporary thinking about humans led me forward from there.
FringeArts: Apart from circus arts, what other performance forms are you playing with or influenced by in Humans?
Yaron Lifschitz: Lots of other genres influenced me. Obviously, I love dance, I’m trained as a theater director, I work extensively with music—classical and contemporary music, and all of these forms, in a way, seem to me to be connected to circus, which is really the actualization of the possibilities we have at our most extreme, they’re the qualities that take us beyond the mortal—that’s what makes a circus act or skill.
In a way, circus is the contemporary, real-time, real Avengers, Marvel comic version of theater—not in its lightness or playfulness necessarily, but in the fact that it features people, special people, super heros, people doing things that aren’t normal—and yet they are normal people. I mean, a well-trained monkey can do what a circus artist does better—they’re faster, stronger, fly higher, there’s nothing special about that, but when a human does it, that makes it extraordinary.
And all the other genres, in a way, then feed in behind this: the movement, intelligence, the performance practice, the improvisation of dance and physical theater, the storytelling and, in my case, the contemporary abstract structures of modern contemporary theater, the musicality of music, the structural life but also the sheer ability to create profound emotion from abstract relationships and harmonic tensions that are found inside music—all of these factors become a sort of energy that feeds into the circus work we do, and takes it, crystallizes it, and pushes it to its extreme. I think circus work in particular is really a fusion of different genres that are all elevated to the level of circus by their precision, their extremity, and by the fact that they’re connected and embodied in acrobats.
FringeArts: What do you look for in a performer?
Yaron Lifschitz: Obviously, our performers need to be extremely skillful, they need to be able to work in ensembles, survive long periods, up to eight months at a time, sometimes longer on the road. They need to be self-reliant, resilient, they need to be tough, tough, tough people. But they also need, I think, a dark, smoldering inner fire. I tend to look for slightly driven introverts with a kind of secret. There’s gotta be something that makes you want to watch them and makes them want to figure out who they are, and I’m lucky enough for young men and women to give me the best physical years of their lives to work with, so my job is to honor that and to use their personalities and their bodies to create things with real beauty and lasting worth.
FringeArts: Where do you situate contemporary circus within the larger world of performance art?
Yaron Lifschitz: For me, when you go to the theater, you are engaged in a public spectacle, a gathering of the mob or the tribe, to experience something deep and personal, and I think contemporary circus is an extension and a part of that. I don’t think genre matters one iota when you sit in the presence of a great show, and I think if you’re in the presence of a show that doesn’t work, genre won’t save you unless you’re just a diehard aficionado of operetto or line dancing or whatever it is that you’re watching.
For me, contemporary circus is very free, there are very few rules that are written, there’s very little that is codified. I think what’s interesting is that because circus takes so long to develop skills and languages, it tends to evolve quickly and then kind of stagnate.
FringeArts: Where do you do situate Circa in particular?
Yaron Lifschitz: Part of Circa’s role is to be at the avant-garde, is to be at the edge and to keep pushing those boundaries, testing what audiences can experience, and what the artform can take. We do a range of work that goes from post-cabaret to experimental to much more experiential kind of work and I think that all of those works together make up the panoply of Circa’s work. We fit into contemporary circus in very different ways. Some of our work is quite mainstream and well regarded and some is very obscure and specialist for aficionados and audience members and I think that diversity is an important part of what we have to offer.
FringeArts: What does Humans hope to communicate beyond its impressive physicality?
Yaron Lifschitz: Humans communicates by connecting the bodies and the pulse and the blood and the breath and the viscera of our artists with that of the audience. So while it’s full of ideas, in many ways, what Humans mostly communicates is that we’re all humans, that we share breath and energy, that we connect, that our hearts skip a beat at the same time, and I think that that’s a really important statement for a species that lives in an increasingly mediated and often disconnected time.
So for me, Humans is a kind of political and poetic work that is incredibly enjoyable and highly virtuosic at the same time, but ultimately, the reason why audiences tend to leap to their feet at the end of Humans is because they felt something on the inside, and I think that the feeling of something that’s not obvious, that you maybe haven’t experienced before or experienced in a while is one of the great gifts that theater, and particularly contemporary theater can give you, and because circus is not particularly codified and we enjoy great freedom within it, I think circus allows us to access those experiences in a visceral and fresh way.
FringeArts: Thanks Yaron!
When: September 28 + 29, 2018
Where: The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street
Cost: $15 – $49
Performed by Circa Contemporary Circus
Photos by Sarah Walker