A flourish of tambourines and the lights go out. A vibrant Spanish beat emerges from the darkness as the musicians of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra assemble on a platform lining the back of the stage. From the centre of the stage sprouts a tall pole, reaching up the ceiling of the City Recital Hall and around this move the performers of Brisbane-based contemporary circus troupe Circa, who gather in a languidly athletic imitation of dancers at a ball – or barn dance – ABO director Paul Dyer drumming enthusiastically against the casing of his harpsichord.
Circa’s Billie Wilson-Coffey and Rowan Heydon-White with soprano Natasha Wilson and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photos © Steven Godbee
New Zealand soprano Natasha Wilson makes her Australian debut, bring a clear-toned subtlety to Tarquino Merula’s aria Su la cetra amorosa, her performance slightly upstaged by the feats of the circus performers, particularly a hair-raising see-saw balancing act between Billie Wilson-Coffey and Rowan Heydon-White.
Circa’s Connor Neall
The Brandenburg’s other special guest is Italian Baroque guitarist Stefano Maiorana, who leads a Fandango by Santiago de Murcia, a tension-filled accompaniment to a wild, break-dancing flavoured performance by Connor Neall, the strings shivering dangerously as he ascends the pole, the performance culminating in a spectacular head-first dive towards the stage floor.
More tranquil works, like the Muerto estáis from the Zuola Codex, allow the circus artists to explore more graceful, structural movements. It is in works such as this – with Wilson delivering forlorn lyrics from her perch on Dyer’s harpsichord stool – that the performance becomes more duet, less dancers and accompaniment.
Circa’s Caroline Baillon
But it is the Circa performers who hold the audience’s attention. Caroline Baillon twists dramatically in a coil of hanging white ropes to Isaac Albéniz’s Leyenda ‘Asturias’, while Rowan Heydon-White stuns on the trapeze, the male performers leaping at her and swinging in a scene suggesting escalating violence.
Circa’s Billie Wilson-Coffey
A lighter note is struck in a fast, funny ensemble piece in which performers slide across and under a table – a vibrant air of slapstick to the carefully refined moves – before Billie Wilson-Coffey takes to the silks, suspended above the stage to the Catalan song La dama d’Argó. The comedy returns in a bull-fight – a red wheel-barrow standing in for the bull.
The Circa performers’ loose, elastic power and impressive physicality make Spanish Baroque an immensely entertaining performance, but in the end, the music winds up subservient to the visual spectacle. While the programme may be full of rare treasures and obscure musical jewels, the effect becomes more one of vamping accompaniment (Vivaldi’s take on the folies d’Espagne works well for this kind of thing), with the details of the music often lost amidst the patter and shuffle on stage, the bursts of applause from the audience, and the choking gasps elicited by the more daring moves. That said, though, Spanish Baroque is a compelling physical spectacle with a rich, interesting soundtrack – an excellent way to spend an evening.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Circa perform Spanish Baroque in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane until May 16