Leviathan layers

Leviathan (Circa/QUT Dance Performance/Circa Zoo)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 3 – 12

Decreased capacities in QPAC theatres in compliance with COVID-19 physical distancing requirements means that the audience for Circa’s “Leviathan” is positioned in checkboard staggered seating format. It’s a motif seen reflected on stage too, on its ground level and above in a custom-designed aerial grid that facilitates its thematic explorations.

Before the action takes to the air, however, things begin enigmatically; as audience members take their seats, two performer feet poke out from beneath the curtain, moving occasionally, intriguingly. As the curtain to the Queensland premiere of the show (which had its world premiere at this year’s Perth Festival) rises, the character to which they belong is revealed at a costumed party scene….  a crowd of chairs amongst the kaleidoscopic colour of streamers and a masse of performers dressed in contemporary streetwear. As the dinosaur mask, helmet and crown of some come off, the party is quickly replaced by feats of balance beyond our grasp as performance stand on top of each other before falling, stunningly across the stage.

The ambitious work is also staggering in its scale, in part because of the size of its 36-person cast as Circa’s internationally-renowned ensemble joins with Circa Zoo’s ensemble of young performers and QUT dancers. And it is wonderful to see each member profiled in real time video projection as part of a series of individual straight-to-camera curtain calls interjecting a contorting performer on centre stage. It’s appropriate, too, in our current times, that the show, which is operating as Brisbane Festival’s biggest in-theatre event has, at its core, a theme of communal human spirit’s power to overcome adversity.

In its exploration of the ordinary, extraordinary mass of humanity, early scenes see ensemble members swarm and creak across the aerial grid as if in a giant game of The Floor is Lava.  Community is clearly at the core of director Yaron Lifschitz’s vision, derived from the work of 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in his book “Leviathan” about the idea of a ‘social contract’ between leaders and communities. Accordingly, the work certainly both explores the tensions between individual freedom and responsibility, and celebrates the power of togetherness. We see extraordinary individual feats of determined strength morphing into instances of mass persistence, emphasised, at one point by on-loop crowd footage.

On stage, performers balance and tumble together with seamless transitions between each set. As well as the company’s trademark acrobatics, however, it features extraordinary physical feats of strength and agility, with standouts including a performer hanging by his hands from the edge of the grid suspended in the air as many others descend down him as if he is their rope and anchor in one.  

“Leviathan” takes its time, but not in an indulgent way, allowing the audience to sit in the work’s intense moments of contrast for full effect. While interconnectivity is a clear consideration from its outset, it is half way in to the show before the company’s trademark human pyramids impress, with performers towering atop each other in twos, then in balance of four and five, such is the remarkable strength and agility of its performers. Audience members are often mesmerised, as is so often the case at a Circa show. The awed silence of the Playhouse Theatre audience is so stunned at times that only the hum of the scaffolding’s machinery moving it into place can be heard.

The precision of the show’s choreographic choices is reflected especially in its checkerboard motif and in particular a scene that sees the ensemble gathering in the blink of an eye into their respective board squares. On a small scale too, we see individual freedom limited by location as grid squares of various sizes box performers, including, in one instance, becoming steadily more confined. The work’s innovation, however, is most obviously seen through its creative use of multi-media to present the action from different perspectives, including looking down upon performers from above as they clump together in attempt to stay within their confines.

“Leviathan” is a mighty monster of a production of the calibre fit for a festival in its dramatic aesthetics and stunning physicality. As all great art does, its meaning is layered in its offer of hopeful considerations of the concepts of freedom and responsibility in society, along with entertaining celebration of the richness of humanity and what we can achieve when we work together. As the ultimate balancing act between intellectual engagement and satisfying entertainment, it represents all the reasons why Circa stands strong as one Brisbane’s best artistic exports.

Photos c/o – Johannes Reinhardt

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