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Depart (UK Tour, LIFT Festival): Review

Depart Dead dolls. The cast of 'Depart'. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

Depart has moments of phenomenal vision and stunning circus that is nothing short of supernatural, but its grave novelty wears off too soon.

Circa, the Australian circus company behind five star Closer recently at the Underbelly, have teamed up with LIFT Festival for this special commission. Depart is an immersive promenade circus experience in a cemetery.

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Rhapsody in blue. Performer in ‘Depart’. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

Concept

Yes, you read the above correctly! It’s a bold concept that some might find uneasy, but the utmost respect is held throughout. Guests for Depart are asked to stay silent for the duration of the show, and the whole approach to Depart is one of profound reverence. This isn’t a jolly big-top spectacular that literally ends up dancing on graves, but a piece that aims to visually and emotionally provoke our sense of mortality. There is euphoric and ethereal music from Lapalux and Sam Glazer, and this is mixed and inter-spliced with live choral works performed by local choirs, and then, of course, spectral pieces of circus.

Much like Closer, there isn’t a narrative per se, but there are a couple of definite themes and directions being explored. Depart finds a whole load of spirits who are ready to “depart” this world for the next. Before they go, they roam the cemetery. Being led around the cemetery, you come across several scenes of various circus stills, many of them aerial, and then Depart cumulates for a grand final goodbye at its terminus. At first Depart is deeply atmospheric. The quiet grandeur of a cemetery is in itself quite a backdrop, with or without the lighting and the circus. Dance and mime eke out themes of leaving, saying goodbye, and not wanting to go. It’s a silent and compelling language that crops up in all acts and holds it achingly and conceptually together.

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Don’t leave me hanging. Performer in ‘Depart’. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

The only problem, like with many promenade shows, is that so much hinges on the pacing, and whether the physical effort of moving from scene to scene is enough of a pay off. Depart does well to lace walking routes with mini performances from singers, dancers, and circus performers, and some top notch video and projection work too, but its not quite enough to keep the novelty suspended for an entire near two hours. Unfortunately, not every scene has the oomph that makes Depart little more than traipsing about a necropolis in the dark. Some bits are spectacular though, like one overwhelming thicket of a quartet of aerial acrobats, an incredible piece of pole work, and a stunningly beautiful piece on the Cyr Wheel. But there are other bits that aren’t as impactful and is little distraction for tiring and muddied feet. What’s more, given that the audience are split into three to take different routes through the cemetery before coming together for the finale means that everything has to be meticulously timed. If your group is a bit slow, or people simply want to take time to reflect and take in some of the things en route, you could end up missing parts of the next scene. You can’t quite take your time to have more of a personal connection with some of the things between scenes at the risk of making yourself and those behind you miss what’s coming up next. It’s a difficult one though, because so much of this will be in route planning and the restrictions of the space being used at each cemetery.

It’s a shame that most of what Depart includes would be just as effective and astounding in a setting that isn’t a cemetery. Depart’s graveyard aesthetic is mostly confined to the wandering to and from scenes as most of the actual acts have to be in clearings simply for space, safety, and feasibility. Only a handful of scenes actually use the ageing headstones and grand epitaphs to eerie visual and intrinsic effect.

But the finale is makes up for Depart’s pacing and setting faults. A sprawling and live action Elgin Marble that looks and feels like people hurrying through a train station, injected with simply astonishing and breathtaking pieces of physical achievement. It’s so unforgettable and utterly ground-breaking that it’s hard to keep your vow of silence at the end when your reflex response is to gasp out loud. The last part of Depart is why Circa is such an internationally renowned circus company: their approach and skills are daring and almost supernatural.

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Veiled ambition. A local choir performing in ‘Depart’. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

Direction & Production

Everything about Depart is incredibly slick, and this is mostly due to the incredible multidisciplinary talent Circa have on board. It’s great to have local groups as well as other initiatives like the National Centre for Circus Arts involved in Depart, and the fruits of their collaboration are evident. This is a show that needs an execution as bold, as visionary, and as broad as its remit.

Making this really happen is Lee Curan’s phenomenal lighting. Rich colours, haunting uplighting, and even fairy lights create an otherworldly spectacle that isn’t without a sense of hallowed playfulness. Lapalux and Glazer’s original music also helps it sound as ethereal and haunting as Depart looks. The bespoke music fits with the acts perfectly and feels very much is as integral to it, giving it an aural engagement as well as a visual one. Ben Foot and Valentina Floris’ video and projection work adds a sumptuous surreality as you wander along your route. They’re beautifully shot and edited making them as gripping and as striking as the crumbling epitaphs they’re projected on or between.

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Far from ropey. Performers in ‘Depart’. Photograph: Courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

Performance

You really can’t ask for a troupe of performers on the top of their game. Each act is executed perfectly, and the strength and grace of them all is as sublime as it is showstopping. Special mention must go to the pair of performers on the pole: a routine that defies gravity and possibility. The two are literally like clockwork as they swing in, out, and between each other whilst tumbling and climbing. Then, the acrobat on (in?) the Cyr Wheel is so fluent and effortless in their craft that it looks as if he’s floating inside his ringed prison. But particularly in this performance, there’s a real sense of pathos that comes through, especially in the scripted falls and falters. It’s an act that feels unexpectedly emotional and tragic, and a rare occasion where a performer’s projected personality is as important as their skill.

Verdict

Depart is absolutely worth seeing, even though it doesn’t quite flourish in its promenade settling and structure. Regardless of whether you want to spend your evening amongst the departed or not, Depart is a show that has moments that will deeply haunt you, and others that will defy your perception of what’s physically possible within this realm.

Depart plays as part of the LIFT Festival, at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, London, until 26 June 2016. It ill then embark on a national tour. For more information and to book tickets, please visit www.liftfestival.com.

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