Circa connects at Jacob's Pillow

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BECKET — "Only connect!" wrote the 20th century English novelist E.M. Forster; the epigraph of his sublime "Howards End," the phrase is at once a beautiful invitation and a cautionary warning. Yet at the very beginning of the Australian performance company Circa's "What Will Have Been" — the epigraph, as it were, of the evening-length work which is being presented this weekend at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival — three people repeatedly seem to only disconnect, either failing to enclose another in an embrace or failing to fit snugly into another's proffered circle of arms.

If the set-up seems obvious, and a happy outcome seems likely — as when presented with plot hiccups in a romcom, you presuppose that these three will indeed connect — there is nothing banal about what unfolds during "What Will Have Been."

Oh, how to give an idea of what Circa, whose full title is Circa Contemporary Circus, is like? OK: imagine that Cirque du Soleil and Streb Extreme Action had a baby. Add to the magical realism of the former and the gut-wrenching daredevilry of the latter, a little DNA from World Wrestling Entertainment. I don't mean Circa displays the cynicism or the winking camp of WWE's fakery, but that, like WWE's participants' mechanics, the interactions of Circa's performers are highly choreographed and practiced, not improvised.

The trio in "What Will Have Been" are acrobats, athletes, and artists, all at once. Hamish McCourty is big, a wall of body that the others scale or bounce off of, and yet his soft tread, his sweet face, his earnest manner are those of a gentle giant. Daniel O'Brien is shorter than McCourty, with a thick rather than wiry compactness; his center of gravity is low, and he often prowls with a catlike stealth so that when he catapults himself into the air the effect is like a bolt of lightning. For at least the first half of the work, Kimberly O'Brien (married to Daniel) wears sturdy, slightly loose pants, so when she reappears later in a short unitard, the relative smallness of her body belies the superhero strength she wields. All three are, of course, hyper-agile, but her flexibility is the lithest, with a quality of "line" similar to a ballet dancer's.

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What these three do is — be advised, I use this overworked adjective very, very, rarely — amazing. They twist into human pretzels; pitch themselves into the air, onto the floor, onto one another; they clamber onto, and hang from suspended straps and bars — from those props they can also hover, turn, and in essence, fly. They balance: on one leg, on their hands, on one hand, on another's shoulders, on their own heads. With another prop — a sort of stark, futuristic-looking set of parallel bars — they do all of the above, but now on a tiny surface. They seem to turn their joints inside out.

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While there is no narrative arc threading through, the parts that make up the whole do feel connected; they are dramatic scenes rather than gymnastic routines. Choreographed by Circa director Yaron Lifschitz in collaboration with the performers, the work is set to a potpourri of music, some of it performed live, with great delicacy, by violinist Lachlan O'Donnell. The musical selections are sensitive, not sensational; there's no cheesy bombast, no easy sentimentality. Likewise Jason Organ's and Richard Clarke's lighting design is sophisticatedly simple — no strobes, nothing to trick the eyes or falsely heighten the senses.

The gravity-defying feats are not weightless, but weighted; they don't float airily but rather hover. What's the difference? One way there's no resistance, in the other the atmosphere, though invisible, is still a tangible presence. Likewise the performers' flexibility isn't "boneless" but rather it's a taut stretchiness; you are aware of the physical strength, the human corporeality. This dichotomy in their work, the contrast between the moments that seem humanly impossible and the awareness that these are, finally, human bodies, is profound. They aren't made of steel, if you will, but of bones and muscles and tendons and sinews. Sometimes this made the proceedings almost unbearable to watch but mostly this reality made the feats all the more magical. There are no hidden wires, no CGI, nothing up their metaphoric sleeves except those bones, muscles, tendons, and sinews.

The trust that the performers have between themselves is also extended to us: note that title — what "Will" have been, not, as the saying usually goes, what "Might" have been. It's an assurance of sorts, but also an interesting play on words considering the necessary blend of the performers' wills and their physical might(s).

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At some point a poignant realization pierced me. They love each other, I thought. Not some "characters" they're portraying, or even the heightened stage selves they're projecting, but Hamish, Daniel, and Kimberly: they love each other. When, as we always knew they would, the three really connected, when they cocooned into an embrace, my heart left my stomach and into my throat.

"And no one exists alone" wrote W.H. Auden, about 29 years after "Howards End."

Janine Parker can be reached at


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