'Sweat and Strings: A Response to "English Baroque with Circa"' by Caitlin McGregor

This piece was commissioned by Melbourne Recital Centre in collaboration with the Emerging Writers Festival for the 2019 Writers in Residence program, and was written in response to this concert. To learn more about the writers and the program, and to read more great music criticism, visit Soundescapes, where stories, music and people intertwine.

Photo by Hugh Letheren. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

   i. the court

A week or so after I see the English Baroque with Circa show, I bump into a friend I haven’t seen for years. She has a circus background, and when I tell her about the show she promises to send me some thoughts and articles. She does, and I read. I read about the history of circus in Australia; tensions between it and animal-rights activists; the ways socio-political issues intersect with its history, practice and consumption. I find out the first time a seal wheel had been used in an Australian circus performance was in the English Baroque show. I find out there is no such thing as a seal wheel. I misheard the audio: the big hoop is called a Cyr wheel.

New information keeps spreading across my desk and tabs and mind. I’m reminded of Janet Malcolm’s analogy in The Silent Woman of writing being like cleaning out a house:

Each person who sits down to write faces not a blank page but his [sic] own vastly overfilled mind. The problem is to clear out most of what is in it, to fill huge garbage bags with the confused jumble of things that have accreted there over the days, months, years of being alive and taking things in through the eyes and ears and heart.

I’m not new to writing, but I am new to writing about performance. I am new to criticism. I am at a loss as to how—or whether—to trust my own judgement about what I should be noticing, what I should be keeping. ‘There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in,’ writes Malcolm. ‘There is the danger of throwing too much out and being left with too bare a house; there is the danger of throwing everything out.’

There is also the danger of inadvertently revealing something uncomfortable about yourself as you go (Marie Kondo: ‘We become so accustomed to living in our space that it is difficult to see it objectively’). What I remember, what I write—what I choose to keep—says more about me than it does about what I’m looking at.

*

I am watching the livestream of an appeal at the Supreme Court of Victoria. I could, instead, read the court reporters’ summaries after the hearing is finished, which would be a lot more time efficient, but I can’t switch the livestream off. I feel invested in the outcome—I need to see every tedious courtroom exchange for myself.

The Crown’s case rests largely on the argument that the complainant, at the original trial, had been a compelling one: they were believable and should therefore be believed. Much of the debate is about how heavily a jury’s verdict should be weighed when considering evidence for an appeal. This is a question about authority of judgement—who has it, and to what degree. It is also, given a jury’s opportunity to witness live evidence, a question about body language and the reading of it, about who sees what when they look at something.

‘We never look at just one thing,’ writes John Berger in Ways of Seeing, ‘we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.’ I spend hours closely watching the judges’ faces, listening to their voices, noting the inflections in their questions and building my own theories about what is going on in their heads. But I know I’m not trying to work out any objective measure of truth, or to even predict the trial’s outcome. I’m not that kind of judge.

*

English Baroque with Circa is the third collaboration between the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Brisbane-based contemporary circus company, Circa. The first was French Baroque with Circa, in 2015, and then in 2017 they collaborated on Spanish Baroque. In each, the orchestra shares the stage with the Circa artists, who perform acts choreographed specifically for the Baroque pieces played by the musicians.

The English Baroque show is split into four main scenes: The Court, The Chapel, The Bedroom, and The Fairground. The orchestra plays a pasticcio of period music from the English Baroque, including pieces composed by Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel and Arcangelo Corelli, on period instruments that include the theorbo (a plucked string instrument that resembles a lute, designed to complement the sound of the human voice) and gut-string violins.

I was unaware of most of these details until I picked up a brochure on my way out of the show. There was a lot about Baroque music and circus I didn’t know while I was watching the show—now, afterwards, I remain oblivious to the majority of it.

Here is my memory of the opening: the haze clears, the houselights go down. I focus on what I can see. Large statues covered in sheets are being carried onto stage. Each is placed on a square block and, one by one, the sheets are pulled off to reveal a living human body. The bodies start to move and dance.


   ii: the chapel

Mum and I sit up in the wings to the left of the stage. The performances begin, and I am determined to watch the Baroque musicians at least as much as I watch the Circa artists. I lean over a wall to make sure every musician is in my line of sight. I am looking for strings.

*

A chapel facilitates a more inward-pulling experience of faith than a church or a cathedral; they are smaller, more private. This is not the official or technical difference, but, to me, it’s the one that sticks.

When I was in Year 7, the chapel at my high school’s senior campus was refurbished. I only know this because my dad was the school principal, and, while waiting for him to take me home, I found myself in the chapel listening to a group of adults talking through the plans. Removal of the carpet. Extension of the raised floor. Dark-red paint on the back wall to accentuate the tessellated tiles. Later that year, I walked into the renovated chapel with my dad, who had just lost a friend. He prayed and grieved and I sat on a chair against the wall, a little away from him but quietly sharing the space. I don’t believe in any kind of god anymore, but the closest I’ve come to any sense of spirituality are in moments like those: when spaces seem to be infused with something more than the sum of their parts. The cynic (/recovering ex-Catholic) in me is always looking for the hows and whys of this feeling. Don’t forget the raised floor. Look at the architecture of the altar. See the way the windows have been designed so that the light drifts and hangs, ethereal. Tricks!

*

A sign outside the venue warns us the Circa performance will involve haze. I picture flashing lights, loud music and smoke, spectacular, everywhere. The haze is minimal though, and nothing is obscured: the sweat, the grunts, the visible strain of muscles and tendons as the performers throw and catch one another, balancing on each other’s bodies, contorting—gracefully!—their bodies into shapes I would have thought unnatural, inhuman. We call circus performances ‘tricks’: the pared-backness of this performance renders that term a misnomer. The few times the performers stumble, or drop a prop, we see. There is nothing for trickery to hide behind.

I quickly realise I don’t need to crane my neck to watch the musicians: I can see most of them easily from my seat. I sit back. The acrobats lift and catch each other, the music swells and falls. Human sweat and strings are wilfully exposed. The haze hides nothing: it’s there to enhance something real. The awe feels deserved, and I let myself feel it.


   iii. the bedroom

One of the acrobats begins to balance on one leg, and I say, involuntarily: ‘No.’ He is about to step onto the abdomen of a woman who is simultaneously being lifted into the air and bending herself backwards into a bridge, using the raised arms of two other acrobats as her support. He steps onto her belly. Mine flips. Hers stays steady. From where I’m sitting, he could be stepping onto rock.

*

When you see a show, you take your body with you. My body is riddled with muscle memories of contortions: habitual twisting to hide this, display that. When I was still in high school, I identified, after much consideration in front of a bathroom mirror, the least flattering angle my face could possibly be viewed from. I am less vain now, but I still feel antsy if anyone spends too long looking at me from that angle. When I feel watched, my feet and hands grow bigger and bigger until they are unwieldly and comical; my teeth shift in their gums, become more pronouncedly crooked; my jawline skews itself even further to my left. I never feel confident I will make it through a supermarket trip without losing control of my breath, without my hands starting to shake: my body can start panicking for little to no reason. I cannot imagine ever being sure enough of my body to move and take risks in the ways the artists on stage do. They look impossibly freed.

My partner is big on proprioception. He says that when he’s feeling anxious, he likes to remind himself of where his feet are. I’m baffled: when I’m anxious, I do my best to climb as far as I can into my mind, or somebody else’s, and forget I have a body at all.

*

This performance is a masterpiece of precision. Time after time, one performer catches another just before their head hits the floor; tumbling bodies miss colliding with one another by mere millimetres. The trust required between artists in this kind of collaboration can surely only come with rigorous, endless practice. You trust this person will catch you because they have done so hundreds of times before; because they’ve trained and trained and caught you and caught you to make sure that now, when you fall, they can catch you again.

I had a friend in high school whose reason for doing lots of things, including fighting people in the park after school and practising parkour, was that he wanted to know he could end up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and trust his body to do whatever he needed to. My motivation for doing lots of things, including running on empty stomachs and hauling too-heavy schoolbags up hills, used to be that I wanted to control how my body looked. Now, I mostly want to be able to carry what—and who—I’ve promised to.

There are newer memories in my muscles now. Call-and-response instincts of care, as well as of anxiety. When a particular voice cries out at night, I am out of bed before waking. Maggie Nelson: ‘I gave my body to my baby. I gave my body to my baby.’ I gave my body to my baby, too, but it sometimes feels like a fraught gift. Push. In the twenty-fourth hour of labour, I could not push any more, and my baby had still not been born. The midwife said You need to push, Caitlin, and I said I AM PUSHING, and they said Oh, and sent for the obstetrician and her forceps. My baby would not latch, and when I took my bra off so the obstetrician could look at my boobs, she said Well, that will be why, your nipples are too small for him to latch on to! Just bottle feed him. I pumped milk every three hours for six months, I gave my body to my baby and when those months were over, I emailed a cosmetic surgery clinic (I haven’t told anyone that before, except perhaps my mother—what does it mean to give your body to a reader?). I guess I wanted my body back. The receptionist emailed back to say that a mastopexy would cost ten thousand dollars. I deleted the emails.

There is a circa artist balancing a tower of blocks on his chin. The year my body started to feel like my own again was the first year we lived in the city without a car. He throws more and more blocks, one at a time, up onto the tower. My baby, a toddler now, would get tired on our walks to and from childcare, or up and down the stairs of our apartment building. I would scoop his densely heavy body up and carry him. Slowly, the strain starts to show: the tension of his muscles, the speed and brevity of his movements. He is pushing up against the limit of how many he can hold. I’d get tired. Sometimes I’d get impatient, or we’d need to stop for a while because my body couldn’t do what I was pushing it to. At one point, he drops some: wavers, tries again. Eventually we’d get where we were going, and my muscles strengthened because they had to. One of the other performers lets him lift her body into the air—trusts him to be the body between her and a fall to the ground.


   iv. the fairground

I am a serious person. This has always embarrassed me deeply, and I have tried in various ways to become somehow lighter, more ‘playful’: colourful clothes phases, excessive drinking and the development of signature dance moves. It’s painful to think about. Most recently, I spent a good chunk of a thesis arguing that the best essays embody a certain type of playing. I want my seriousness and my playfulness, both.

*

I read and re-read D. W. Winnicott’s work on playing:

To get to the idea of playing, it is helpful to think of the preoccupation that characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions.

For Winnicott, playing is a serious state. It occurs in a ‘potential space’ that is ‘outside the individual, but … is not the external world’: a space not unlike the one Berger alludes to when he writes of us ‘always looking at the relation between things and ourselves’. Play is precarious, writes Winnicott, because ‘it is always on the theoretical line between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived’.

For children—and, in many instances I saw onstage, for Circa artists and musicians—playing involves the manipulation of objects, infusing them with what Winnicott calls ‘dream meaning and feeling’. For the rest of us, playing mostly operates in verbal communication: ‘It manifests itself, for instance, in the choice of words, in the inflections of the voice, and indeed in the sense of humour.’ Whatever its manifestation, its purpose is the same: ‘creative apperception’. To take something new—to take what we see—and make sense of it through creativity and play, working it through and testing it against what we already feel and know.

*

My son’s kinder centre sends updates through an app called StoryPark. I am always moved by, and grateful for, the care with which his teachers observe and record his play. This afternoon, I received an update titled ‘Building an island’:

This afternoon S and O built an island. The island started off small and was a project amongst five friends. Slowly as the time ticked by the other children drifted off and O and S remained together to continue their play.

The storyline was long and winding with the island taking many forms and supporting a range of characters. At various points it had a forest (trees made by rosemary plucked from the garden), it had wild animals (courtesy of the lego table on the veranda) stomping through it leaving tracks and further on it was surrounded by deep holes in the earth, cut off from the rest of the world. Through it all the two children negotiated the direction of play and encouraged each other to engage in the evolving story.

In the attached photos, you can see the light getting more and more golden—their island-building had taken up most of the day. I’d spent the same hours a few kilometres away, building an essay with pieces of theory and memory and words in the same near-withdrawal state that allowed S and O access to their island.

*

English Baroque with Circa embodies play taken seriously. You have to be serious about playing to learn how to balance on a wobbling tower of criss-crossed pipes, or how to give your body over to the roll of a Cyr wheel. The collaboration between musicians and Circa artists onstage is also a perfect example of what Winnicott calls shared play—the bridge between playing and ‘cultural experiences’.

What drives an artist to pursue play so seriously? Is it the same force(s) that drive me—us—to watch them do it? Is it the same force that brings me to write? I find Winnicott helpful again: he writes of playing as a type of creativity that ‘belongs to being alive’, of creative apperception as the thing that ‘more than anything else…makes the individual feel that life is worth living.’ I’ve been given to thinking of play as something extra, as something indulgent and unnecessary once we hit adulthood. But writing an essay is cleaning a house is playing is reading is performing is watching is listening, is taking what we see and asking what it means—or could mean—in the context of the rest of our lives. There is the danger of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in.

I keep playing.




Caitlin McGregor is an essayist. Her work has been published by a range of magazines and literary journals, including The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and Overland. She has edited nonfiction for Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow and Farrago, and in 2018 was an Express Media judge for the John Marsden Prize for Young Writers. Caitlin is currently a writer-in-residence at the Melbourne Recital Centre, and is working on her first essay collection.