Brisbane-based contemporary circus company Circa premiered Peepshow in Lismore, NSW in March, 2018. The show by Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz has since toured the world. Two Limelight critics attended the opening at the Sydney Opera House this week – and had very different responses.
Circa’s Peepshow at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton
★★ Circa’s Peepshow leaves this reviewer unseduced.
A peepshow is an invitation to witness, with presumably voluptuous and voyeuristic thrill, the salacious and forbidden. At Circa’s Peepshow, what audiences witness is something that an over-zealous, extra-flexible and uncertainly horny troupe of oddballs might have concocted at the back of a hired gym. How did it find its way to the Sydney Opera House?
Without flair, without imagination, and fatally without humour, this show mounts with taut glutes and some acrobatic skill a travesty in exposed flesh. Such was foreshadowed in the marketing video – even this fails to conceal how effortfully many of the performers move, the almost farcical lack of flow. The wobbles come early; the purpled faces soon follow. I think it was in the first few seconds that one of the performers caught another and let out a surprised grunt.
Part contemporary dance, part circus, part awkward strip tease, there are the typical tumbles and aerials one could (wearily) expect. There was also a husky redhead playing with blocks; a bald strongman whose solo act was to huff at us like a deranged sex offender; and another man who performed what I would presume is a Performing Arts major’s bizarre interpretation of a mating ritual.
Sharp, voluble respirations are one motif of the show. Another is jabbing elbows. Whether performed individually and in concert by the Circa ensemble, they are of incomprehensible import.
At times it feels as though you are the sober person at a buck’s/hen’s night lap dance. Other moments, I half expected to hear someone shout ‘parkour!’ Throughout, there is a whiff of melodramatic intensity that called to mind Gob’s performance style from Arrested Development. (My disappointment, I acknowledge, is now turning cruel.)
Circa’s Peepshow at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton
“Behold!” director Yaron Lifschitz seems to command. Very soon into the show, you resist the call. By the end, when they’re on stage climbing on each other to the slow choral version of the Eurythmics’s Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), you just want it to stop.
This is really the unfortunate trapping of acrobatics as art. It was on modest if undeniable display here, but even in its supreme incarnation, physical talent is never enough. There’s only so many ways a body can twist, contort, climb and fall before you zone out; there’s only so long a heart can be held in the mouth before it feels like a lump just sitting there, a large and unwelcome mass.
In other words, being merely impressed becomes boring, fast. One needs also to be entertained. Strut and Fret’s sensational world-touring Blanc de Blanc – which last soared through the Opera House in 2019 – kept frothing its champagne bubbles in my memory. Against its ribald joys, its scintillating titillating pleasures, this feels like a pale-faced cousin trying so hard to be noticed. Was there comedy in Circa? At times. But barely.
The production design really didn’t help matters. On the wide stage of the Drama Theatre, with a glittery fringe cascading as a backdrop, the performers shrank into forlorn miniature. Even the movements capably pulled off seemed to trace diminutive arcs. The lighting only occasionally flatters, and doesn’t always direct attention where it should. The music was often too quiet, while tracks heavy on bass caused something in the theatre’s intestines to throb. In the second act, a few letters inside the large neon Peepshow sign failed.
Let nothing be said about the costumes except they all wore sparkly spandex shorts. (I had a pair myself when I did aerobic gymnastics in grade five.)
The two stars of this review shine for one brilliant prank this show pulled. Without giving away too much, it featured an individual yanked from the audience cupping from behind a pair of naked breasts. This stunt at the same time introduced us to a new performer, whose sinuous grace, physical control and feline playfulness made him a clear standout.
I had brought my boyfriend along, hoping Circa’s Peeshow could lend itself to a bit of post-show frisk. We were both of us, alas, entirely unseduced.
Jarred Dewey in Circa’s Peepshow at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Prudence Upton
★★★★ Circa shows off the knife-edge skills that make contemporary circus so formidable.
Circa’s Peepshow presents the famed Brisbane-based circus performers in stripped-back mode, if by stripped back you mean tiny sequinned shorts in a selection of colours, and when that is just a bit too much clothing, thongs (not the kind you wear on your feet).
If, having attended the company’s recent Sydney Festival show Humans 2.0 you think you’ve seen Circa, think again. Circa is a chameleon, a company often with three or four shows simultaneously on the go, each substantially different. Humans 2.0 revealed Circa in an austere, philosophical mood that, frankly, was a touch tedious. As its name suggests, Circa’s Peepshow happily heads towards the less cerebral end of the performance spectrum. Who doesn’t like a glitter curtain, some neon lights and attractive bodies doing awesome things?
That said, Peepshow is not without intriguing undercurrents, driven chiefly by the music. Peepshow is by its nature a series of acts and the sophisticated song list establishes a coherent atmosphere. Sitting alongside original music from Circa favourite Ori Lichtik are covers of popular numbers that are most definitely not your vanilla versions. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s You Made Me Love You? Tick. Amanda Lear’s take on Let Me Entertain You from the musical Gypsy? Thank you very much. And two highly individual interpretations of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) from The Soul Rebels and, gorgeously, by Belgian women’s choir Scala & Kolacny Brothers. Superb.
It’s not all covers, though. In a striking combination of music and movement, Benjamin Clementine’s Adios accompanies Jarred Dewey’s sensuous trapeze act. Dewey weaves grace, strength, contortion and balance into something that approaches performance art.
Peepshow gives a few nods to the variety stage with an amusing, unthreatening striptease, some juggling and a muscleman demonstration in which he expands before our eyes. Splendid. These more old-fashioned acts add pleasing texture to a show centred around the knife-edge skills that make contemporary circus so formidable.
Billie Wilson-Coffey on the aerial silks in Circa’s Peepshow. Photo © Prudence Upton
Standing out in the ensemble of eight, Circa veteran Billie Wilson-Coffey is seemingly everywhere, especially glorious on the aerial silks to The Eden House’s tremulous take on Venus in Furs (1967, The Velvet Underground), while it is Kimberley O’Brien’s lot to be involved in multiple acts of speed and danger. Near the end there’s a perilous throw that involves two sets of people balancing on other’s shoulders and playing catch with O’Brien, who spins horizontally between them. Not surprisingly it’s a Circa act wheeled out in various productions, but why not? It’s a gasp-inducing winner.
All the men are excellent but the women – Rhiannon Cave-Walker and Manelaya Kaydos-Nitis are the others – are particularly strong and engaging. The show’s name may hark back to an era in which women were objects but contemporary circus, and Circa, tell a rather different story. Hallelujah.
Circa’s Peepshow is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 14 February