Black robes catch in the wind as they stride forward, slowly weaving through the gathered audience, captivating every watcher. Their voices begin to rise, no longer a whisper, no longer a breath caught away by the wind; the melody creeps into our ears. Above us the dancer takes his last, slow, pained glimpse into the distance as we depart.
This is DEPART, our chance to ‘grasp the ungraspable, a circus to guide us through the underworld’. We gathered in the growing dusk at the gates of Tower Hamlets Cemetery park on a drizzly Sunday evening, sheltering under the trees as the droplets smattered the lush green grass around us, waiting for darkness to fall.
We’ve been given a small black card with the four rules of the evening printed across it in ominous block capitals. WALK IN SILENCE. DO NOT TAKE PHOTOS. FOLLOW THE PATH + KEEP WALKING. LOOK UP, DON’T LOOK BACK. My friend sucks in a breath and lets out a quick laugh as she reads the instructions. But it’s an awkward laugh — we are already captivated.
Circa is a name set apart in the world of circus performing arts, and the Depart Circus is unique within that — an opportunity to see a circus performance within the grounds of a hallowed cemetery after dark. Despite having a long standing love of most things macabre, and being a self confessed taphophile (thats someone with an extreme fondness for graveyards), I have to admit I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, and any small whiff of an expectation that had begun to paint my vivid imagination was completely displaced once the black robed, torch bearing guides led us down the wending paths into the depths of the overgrown wonderland. Tower Hamlets is one of the Magnificent Seven, London’s great Victorian cemeteries. The overgrown memorial trees, rampant vines and tumbling stone have long reclaimed the orderly Victorian garden space that the cemetery once was, and our first encounter in the deepening night was with rope aerialists twisting, writhing and hanging in slow motion from the trees above our heads.
When Daisy Drury, Director of Circus Development at the National Centre for Circus Arts took up the challenge to create a theatre production that was properly frightening, I wonder if she had in mind such a perfect juxtaposition of terror and beauty? She admitted that by the end of the 5 year journey that it took to bring Depart to our curious stage, the desire to frighten had long passed. Instead it became a fully immersive story to expose the lengths and depths that circus can reach. On Sunday evening, these were depths we searched, along with deeper observation of our own souls as we trudged wonder-filled through the darkened paths of the dead, honouring their resting place with a little company.
Our requested silence was for a reason, the world around us was filled with the harmonies of choral singers, and an stunning electronic soundscape created by Lapalux. Respectfully leaving our cameras at home and our phones in our bags allowed us to fully absorb all we saw and felt. Keeping to the path and following whoever was directly ahead of you was the only option in the darkness, for fear of missing a moment or falling into a collapsing crypt by the wayside. Looking up was imperative, the silent array of aerialists strung between the branches of the ancient trees was breath-taking. Without the applause and pause for photos we remained captivated in the moment, the world moving in natural and beautiful motion around us. An aerialist swinging from a hoop as the chanting singers lead us by, projections of flowers coming into bloom upon the tombstones, distorted movements of dancers in pale dresses among the graves, trapeze and rope artists suspended above us, acrobats in intimate dance balanced against each other by the weight of their own bodies, perfect union. Look up, don’t look back.
The climax in the centre of the graveyard on a long stage told a final, otherworldly tale of constant movement into and beyond life, and the fine line between, a looking glass through which we could interpret a glimpse of the underworld and souls passing through. It was also a showcase of the vast range of talent Circa brings, and it left me awestruck on a whole other level toward the extremes our human bodies can excel to. In all, Depart had to be seen to be believed, and I’m gutted for those of you that missed out.
Let’s keep our fingers crossed to see a resurrection soon when Depart heads out on national tour in 2017.
#DepartCircus was in residence at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park from Thursday 16th — Sunday 26th June. Commissioned by LIFT as part of the Lift Festival, Lead by Yaron Lifschitz with his internationally acclaimed company Circa. Including creative support from Lapalux, video artists SDNA, lighting designer Lee Curran, and music directors Issy Adams and Sam Glazer. Learn more at http://www.departcircus.com