Review: A Spectacle of Play (Hercinia Arts Collective)

Dazzling circus acts are the focal point of A Spectacle Play by the Hercinia Arts Collective in Toronto

A Spectacle of Play is a collection of works from the world of contemporary circus. Hercinia Arts Collective brings a variety of pieces involving aerial silks, trapeze, ropes, hula-hoop and even clowning. Unfortunately, these shows can’t take place in a giant circus tent in the middle of the city: instead, the circus found its home in a mysterious location rightfully named “The Bat Cave”.

I think the abilities of the performers are amazing, especially considering that I have no upper body strength to pull myself up a rope. The artists twist and spin in the air like they are weightless. There is no fear or hesitation as they hover by the ceiling. Even though I know they are professionals, I feel my heart beating fast as a woman slides down into a full split with each foot precariously wrapped in strips of silk, dangling in the air. Watching anyone do that without flinching or calling the fire department is impressive.

The show starts off with a piece called Everlasting Slumber, a twisted fairy tale about an acrobatic family whose son (Jasper Empson) takes a fall during a rope trick. After his fall, the son makes his way through an enchanted land ruled by an evil snake. The son finds his family in circus-related traps made by the snake. He tries to save his older sister (Molly Keczan) from being tangled in silks, his mother (Kirsten Harvey) from the infinite cycle of hula-hooping, and his youngest sister (Emily Hughes) from a spellbound sleep on an aerial hoop.

Even though the fairytale story feels like it is made for children, it is heavy with mature concepts like helplessness and loss. The show is narrated by the young Ellery Miki-Petite like it is a simple bedtime story, but this bedtime story is not full of sunshine and rainbows, but of dark symbolism. The innocent voice describes the scenes while a screen projects animation of black twisted trees done by Evan Derushie. The aerial tricks make the scenes enchanting. The most beautiful scene is the boy and his young sister’s choreography suspended on a hoop. The mixture of bewitching visuals and music by Waylen Miki make for a very eerie experience reminiscent of the film Pan’s Labyrinth.

Then two women lighten the mood with their piece Grannies in the Park. Dressed as seniors, they accidentally begin an acrobatic routine while making jokes. I find clowns to be incredibly unsettling, but this is the type of clowning I appreciate. Instead of wide smiles and large shoes, it’s grey wigs and large fake backsides.

Then a movie starts playing on a screen at the side of the room, making the whole audience turn. Benched is a short film about a stranger helping an upset woman, represented by guerilla aerial and dance. The unique piece enhances the creativity of the performing artists. The choreography on the bench shows that a small space is not as limiting as you would expect.

The calm mood is immediately disrupted by The Chaos Project. Two pieces called “Childhood” and “Corporate Chaos” fill the stage with performers running, spinning and climbing ropes and trapeze. The room vibrates with the energy of the artists and the flurry of movement. The Chaos Project is a clever way of showing the need for freedom in different stages of our lives. It was a magnificent finale.

A Spectacle of Play is no longer running shows and The Bat Cave might be shut down, but Hercinia Arts Collective continues to do art shows, roaming acts, busker shows, and private events. If you’re more interesting in becoming part of the act than watching it, you can sign up for classes and be taught by the masters of the craft. Options like silks, trapeze and acro-dance seem like exciting things to try.  If there’s anything I have learned from this event it’s that there is nothing wrong with play.

Photograph of Molly Keczan by Chris Hutcheson.