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The days when an opera singer might be expected just to plant themselves centre stage and sing are long gone. But even so, the prospect of a soprano spinning on a trapeze is quite startling. That, however, is a likely scenario at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, where the opening show combines Benjamin Britten, Arthur Rimbaud — and circus.
Sarah Tynan will sing Illuminations, Britten’s setting of Rimbaud’s surreal poems, in the company of nine circus performers. She won’t be performing handstands while singing — not the best position from which to project the voice. But the director Struan Leslie explains that she is likely to perform a (non-vocal) trapeze duet and to “sing at some point from a piece of equipment”.
Meanwhile, throughout the piece, the circus artists will create a physical response to the nine songs. Even the musicians — the innovative Aurora Orchestra, who have famously performed whole symphonies by heart — will be on the move. Though they won’t, sadly, be dangling from a trapeze.
“There was an early drawing whereby we had all the string players suspended from the ceiling,” says Leslie, adding, somewhat regretfully, that that particular idea bit the dust. “One day perhaps! But we have got performers who are up for standing on top of a wardrobe and playing. That feels like quite a big step.”
It all makes spinning a few plates sound very old hat. But for Leslie, this complex enterprise is a labour of love. Having trained at the London Contemporary Dance School and spent many years working on choreography and movement within theatre — including five years as head of movement for the RSC — he has long been in search of a stage language for Rimbaud’s work that might meet the rich, sensual imagery and elastic narrative of the poems.
“When I was still working in the dance world, before I moved to theatre, I remember thinking, ‘How would you choreograph this?’” he recalls. “I workshopped a few ideas and they never met it. But circus feels right to me because it has a vertical element to it.
“The clue is in the title,” he adds. “They’re illuminations, not illustrations. There’s a sort of narrative but [the poems] are more like visions or dreams. So it’s not about communicating narrative — that would be like trying to pin things on to a line that wasn’t really there. It’s not about meaning, it’s about an experience of something.”
Rimbaud’s poems inhabit a surreal world, often tumbling within a phrase between the realistic and the fantastical. “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star, and I dance” reads one section. You can see how circus performers might express those images physically. But Leslie adds that there is also a relationship between the way Rimbaud uses words to create sensation rather than sense — “the moon burns and howls”, for instance — and the way acrobats stretch their bodies far beyond the functional.
“You hear it in Britten’s music, too,” he says. “There are moments where it is reaching suspension points and then taking us over into another world. And there’s that great thing about circus performers — there’s a transformative power they have. They go from being human beings to being flying objects. “
Even so, I wonder whether there’s a danger that the visual and aural elements of the performance could distract from one another? Leslie suggests that, on the contrary, physical performance can draw out shapes in the music. His task, he feels, is to “help people to listen through seeing”.
“It’s like the way taste and smell are connected,” he adds. “I’m trying to make a connection between seeing and hearing. For me there is something about the rigour of the circus performer meeting the rigour and specificity of the musician that is really exciting.”
When I call into the rehearsal room a week later, the possibilities immediately become clearer. Even just resting, the circus artists shift the parameters of physical normality. One performer slides casually into the splits during a chat, while another balances on one hand and a third juggles hats. The movement in the room has a different quality to normal: these are people comfortable with being inverted, hanging at great height, shifting their bodies horizontally through space.
All nine are performers interested in pushing circus well beyond a series of stunts into something more expressive and responsive. Trapeze artist Eric McGill explains that for both them and the musicians this will be new territory.
“There’s a danger that when you combine art-forms they all get watered down,” he says. “That’s not the case here. We’re trying to find a language through which the music and the skills are working in tune.”
There are particular challenges, he adds, to matching circus moves to a serious piece of music. In contrast, say, to dance choreography, where moves can be created, set and repeated on cue, there is an element of unpredictability — and danger — to circus.
“In circus, if someone’s not ready, you mustn’t do the move,” he explains. “Circus bands know this and will maybe repeat a bar a couple of times until the performers are ready. But this will be different.”
I watch a section of rehearsal. Leslie is working with Aislinn Mulligan on the aerial silks: long strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling from which she can suspend herself mid-air. The aim is not just to react to the rhythm and shape of the music, but to find a deeper emotional and physical response and then let that response drive the movement.
“What we need is the tension between your physicality and the music,” Leslie tells her. “So we don’t end up with both doing the same thing.”
As a haunting segment of Britten’s music oozes from the CD player, Mulligan begins by repeatedly falling backwards and recovering, like someone veering towards then away from a dark truth in a dream. She then extends that movement up into the silks to create a sequence of vertiginous lunges and twists, both striking and unsettling.
Leslie says that there is a “hunger” in contemporary circus to use the skills of the discipline to express, rather than impress. He points to the Australian group Circa, who visited this year’s London International Mime Festival with The Return, a harrowingly beautiful piece about loss and displacement.
But there is also, he notes, keen interest in the use of physicality in more conventional theatre. His work as movement director for stage productions has included everything from formal choreography to detailed work ensuring that actors stand and sit in keeping with the setting of a drama, be it 19th-century Russia or Elizabethan England. We read body language unconsciously all the time in real life, he points out: theatre can use the audience’s skill in deciphering non-verbal communication to create vivid expressive work.
“There are great stories about circus companies choreographing falls in, because they know the audience will be really alert for the rest of the show,” he says. “I’m interested in that dirty edge. It fulfils something in our lives that we don’t necessarily get anywhere else . . . We need to give audiences something that doesn’t make them behave as if they are watching a screen.”
‘Illuminations’, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Festival, June 10-13 aldeburgh.co.uk
Photographs: Howard Sooley; Ben Hopper