Circomedia, Bristol; 30th September, 2016
The current incarnation of Citrus Arts‘ Ceirw – Savage Hart is a gothic fairytale of fading glories, told through narrative dance that draws on classical ballet, folk, and aerial languages. This show, at Bristol’s major circus school, was accompanied by an invitation to a group of local writers and circus enthusiasts, facilitated by The Circus Diaries. Like a book club, but for circus, the show was followed by a discussion about the work, and the opportunity to develop a greater body of critical discourse around circus arts.
The ceirw of the title is the Welsh word for deer, and the English pun speaks for itself. The central character of the wordless piece is a lord (Zeph Gould) whose manor has seen better days: a banqueting board shrunk to the size of a kitchen dining table, gilt picture frames that only show the creeping natural world outside in tree trunks and wind chimes, a trophy wall reduced to three carved panels, a shaft of swirling dust motes caught in the amber light of sunshine penetrating a chink in the wall. His desire to possess and control extends both to the animals whose heads he hunts, and to his wife (Lauren Poulton).
The deer heads are beautifully lifelike works of art in the form of felt masks, created by Gladys Paulus, and animated by Luke Bradshaw (the stag), Hannah Darby (the doe), and Charlotte Dawson (the young buck). Tied behind the head with laces that allow the animals to cavort upside-down on aerial equipment, or tussle together on the floor, the masks’ removal reveals the sprites who embody nature’s will, avenging, guiding, or just causing mischief.
The animal gaze atop human movements is preternatural, and whether these spirits are real or inside the lord’s mind is ambiguous. Either way, we are drawn into a gripping ghost story that satisfies with a tender conclusion. Elegiac cello is played live by composer Simon McCorry, while James Minas-Blight loops and mixes in percussion, birdsong or piano as the moods shift.
The power struggles between mankind and nature are reflected in the courtship battles that play out between the deer, the human characters, and interminglings of the two. In the fragmented tokens of former sumptiousness and the frustrated impotence of the central figure, I see a choreography of male insecurities in an age where disintegration of patriarchal supremacy leaves long-established power structures off-kilter. The show, co-written and directed by the husband and wife team behind Citrus Arts (Bridie & James Doyle-Roberts), is no damning kind of feminism though. Instead, the playful-yet-firm spirits offer a view of alternative realities that allow man and woman to find equitable co-existence, through accessible and enigmatic dance-storytelling, and layers of metaphor that will prod at your subconscious.
Other perspectives reveal other interpretations and, here, Vicky Vatcher shares hers:
Fairy tale and whimsy come close to touching the ‘feel’ of this piece, but the force of the physical work pushes it into a more robust place. Dance forms the basis of the storytelling method – through ballet, contact, modern and a touch of capoeira, in collaboration with some trapeze and silk work. The programme points to the beautifully fashioned masks as fundamental to the show’s concept, in both appearance and movement design (it is only possible to work in these full masks for a limited period, so where they must come off the story includes this action).
The overall vision, in both narrative and appearance (with a predominant colour of blood red), reminds me of classical ballet; the princess falls in love with a beautiful animal – animal on the outside, mischievous human spirit on the inside – so much so that her husband has cause to be jealous; thus the forces of dark and light, man against nature, battle it out. I admire the commitment and refined technique of the performers but this does seem a strangely old fashioned overall concept.
Eliška Ducárová is not a regular visitor to theatre, dance or circus spaces, and she describes her experience of the show:
Walking into this performance I didn’t know what to expect. It’s been years since I last saw a live stage performance, and experiencing theatre mixed with circus elements was a first for me. Just coming through the main door stirred up an odd sense of excitement in me.
First thing that gripped me from the beginning was the stage and how it kept growing throughout the performance, before my very eyes, like a changing vivid painting. The way the colours and music swam together through the room was mesmerizing. Autumn and wilderness were not only outside the walls, but also within. The simplicity of the stage set-up really enhanced my own imagination. There was hardly any movement of stage props required, yet the audience could sense and feel the change of setting and mood: a feat in itself.
As for the performance, I found it nothing short of breath-taking. The interaction between the humans and ‘animals’, or Man and Nature, were so raw and exciting I found myself at the edge of my seat with every change of scene. The beautiful felt masks worn by the performers looked hauntingly real but, of course, it was the performers themselves who give life and soul to these creatures. As they moved around and rippled in tune with the music, they evoked awe and respect in the same way as if I had seen a real stag out in the woods. The actors conveyed without words, or even facial expressions – with just their body and stage presence – what most can’t through endless lines of poignant dialogue.
Some scenes, even days later, still stay with me and still move me. I’ll never forget how the stag walks onto the stage for the final confrontation, bathed in an eerie light. Another scene that will be difficult to erase from my memory is the flying dance between girl and deer towards the end, as they come together in harmony and understanding.
While the visuals and dancing – and combining it all into an effortlessly gorgeous picture – is important, and work extremely well in this show, it’s always the story that we carry away with us. In this respect, Savage Hart absolutely accomplishes this.
Once more I was reminded how much nature means to me, and to humanity, how people can’t really function without it. In the dark, tiny church-turned-theatre venue I was reminded how, if we just respect nature and let it follow its course, nature will give itself to us. Of course, the message and idea behind the show are open for everyone to judge and interpret for themselves, but I found it overwhelming how such heavy and profound emotions could be delivered to me through a combination of dance, music and colour. We all have a bit of savage heart inside us, and this show, without any words necessary, reminded me how important it is to get in touch with that part.