When Cirque du Soleil performers swung into action at Sunday night’s Academy Awards, they delivered a bolt of energy to an otherwise torpid broadcast - and a reminder that contemporary circus ensembles occupy a secure niche on the entertainment landscape.
In the past couple of years, in performances by such troupes as Les 7 Doigts de la Main and Cirque Eloize (as well as a couple of appearances by the now-venerable Cirque du Soleil itself), Boston audiences have seen the creative magic that can be generated when the circus arts are married to dance, music, storytelling (however elliptical or allegorical), video projections, and street theater.
Now comes “Circa,’’ by an Australia-based performance troupe of the same name, making its Boston debut at the Paramount Center Mainstage through Sunday, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston in association with ArtsEmerson.
Created by Circa’s artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, along with the ensemble, the roughly 75-minute “Circa’’ blends routines from three of the company’s most popular works.
Circa aims for fewer overtly crowd-pleasing touches than the aforementioned troupes. Yet you are drawn in as seven performers - five men, two women - pull off one small miracle after another of balance, flexibility, strength, and precision. The effect is hypnotic.
Also unsettling. You’re likely to cringe when the performers contort themselves into human switchblades. There were times on opening night when they seemed on the verge of pushing their bodies past all limits, prompting audience members to shift uneasily in their seats. (“Is there a chiropractor in the house?’’ I found myself wondering at one point).
But it’s impossible not to admire the rigorous artistry of “Circa,’’ with its fusion of acrobatics, gymnastics, and performance art.
While no words are spoken and there is no clearly discernible narrative framework, a number of the early routines in “Circa’’ are characterized by spasmodic twisting and jerking, as if the performers are in the grip of external forces, lacking free will. Other routines abound in the sheer, propulsive joy of movement.
Recorded music, ranging from machine-gun like percussion to eerie, dreamy soundscapes to a mournful ballad by Leonard Cohen, helps establish a wide palette of moods throughout “Circa.’’
(In a program note, Lifschitz describes his troupe’s work this way: “It is, in its heart, a report on what is alive, nourishing, and contemporary in circus. It is also a strange and curious new beast; at once savage, funny, lyrical, pure, and challenging.’’)
The pressures of performance (and of needing to please) are artfully evoked by a Beckett-like routine in which a spotlight first illuminates one side of the stage, then the other, then back again, forcing a performer to scurry to and fro, undertaking increasingly punishing stunts in a bid to appease the demands of this pitiless taskmaster.
There are some playful moments, too, as when two male performers launch into a quick game of patty-cake, then vie for the approval of the crowd with dueling muscle-man poses. At another point, a performer enlists the audience in a stop-and-start game of finger-snapping, then proceeds to use his own fingers in a dextrous pantomime.
But much of “Circa’’ is about the drama of bodies suddenly in motion, flying past one another at breakneck speed, then just as suddenly at a standstill, defying the laws of physics.
And geometry, too, for much of evening. A female performer somehow twists her body into a spider-like position, then scuttles across the floor. Three male performers create a human pyramid, standing atop one another’s shoulders - and then one performer leaps to the ground and dramatically smashes the pyramid. A male performer on a trapeze virtually turns himself inside out, as if trying to escape his own body; a female performer collapses her entire frame to somehow fit herself through a metal hoop.
The impulse at times during “Circa’’ is to rub your eyes in disbelief - not a good move, because this show is quite a sight to see.
Because of an editing error, the photo credit that ran with this initial review was wrong. The photographer was Justin Nicholas and the photo was supplied by the Celebrity Series of Boston.