The swings and roundabouts of the circus in harmony with the Baroque

When Marie Sallé danced the role of the Rose in the flower scene of a divertissement in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 18th century Les Indes Galantes she might have shown her ankles and décolletage but that’s about all she would reveal to her adoring public.

I wonder how she would react 280 years later if she saw the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s collaboration with Circa in their new production, French Baroque. If the comparison seems to be verging on the ridiculous, well, it’s not really that strange.

Maybe Sallé would love the skill and athleticism of the Circa performers as she was born into a family of fairground performers and her uncle, Francois Moylin, was a much admired actor, tumbler and comedian.

French Baroque, premiering in Sydney on July 22 – continuing until August 1 – is an amalgam of baroque music and 21st century acrobatics and circus acts. The female performers in Circa first appear in elegant, satin dresses, 18th century style, in red, sapphire, lilac and yellow. They soon discard the skirts of the dresses, stripping down to leotards resembling cute retro swimsuits, circa Hollywood 1950s.

The music of Rameau, who composed many opera ballets, is woven through the French Baroque program. His suite from Les Indes Galantes is played by the orchestra in the first half of the program and more of his works in the second half, in which the Circa acrobats interpret the music of several composers, among them Jean-Baptiste Lully, the who played such an important part in the reign of Louis XIV. Lully danced with the king in the Ballet Royal de le Nuit and was later designated the Royal composer for instrumental music.

The balletic link between Louis XIV, Rameau and Lully suggested there might be as much dance as there were acrobatics in the program and while the circus tricks dominated, the collaboration remained true to its intention.

Circa’s troupe balanced on chairs propped up with glass bottles, formed human stepladders, stood on one another’s shoulders, wound their limbs around silky fabrics as they rose high in the air, and twirled their torsos as they spun their hoola hoops. Each act was familiar enough from the cirque acts we’ve seen in Australia in recent years.

Yet there was something more intriguing about Circa’s performance than the average cirque show. The acrobats responded to the music with more subtlety and fluidity than many cirque troupes whose body language is more about ‘hey, look at me!’

French Baroque, initiated by Paul Dyer and Yaron Lifschitz, the artistic directors of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Circa, was anchored with a central figure, the French soprano, Claire Lefilliâtre, who united the orchestra and acrobats with her compelling narrative in both her singing and ease of movement across the stage.

The concept of circus and orchestra isn’t new as Cirque de la Symphonie, comprising acrobats, jugglers, contortionists and strong men, has been performing with orchestras around the world for at least six years and will return to Australia in October with a season at the Sydney Opera House.

It’s hard to know whether this kind of collaboration will be yesterday’s news or if it might develop into something worth preserving and evolving.

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2015 Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's French Baroque with Circa, with soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, photo © Steven Godbee

2015 Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s French Baroque with Circa, with soprano Claire Lefilliâtre, photo © Steven Godbee

Paul O'Keeffe rehearsing for French Baroque photo © Steven Godbee

Paul O’Keeffe rehearsing for French Baroque photo © Steven Godbee

2015 Australian Brandenburg Orchestra's French Baroque with Circa, photo © Steven Godbee

2015 Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s French Baroque with Circa, photo © Steven Godbee

Marie Sallé

Marie Sallé

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Les Indes Galantes, 1735

Les Indes Galantes, 1735

Alexander Streltsov, Cirque de la Symphonie, photographer unknown

Alexander Streltsov, Cirque de la Symphonie, photographer unknown