Interview: choreographer Struan Leslie

The movement director is making a perform that mixes acrobatic methods with music and poetry at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival

Struan Leslie, photographed earlier this month©Howard Sooley

Struan Leslie, photographed earlier this month

The days when an opera singer might be expected just to plant themselves centre stage and sing are extended gone. But even so, the prospect of a soprano spinning on a trapeze is fairly startling. That, however, is a likely scenario at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, exactly where the opening show combines Benjamin Britten, Arthur Rimbaud — and circus.

Sarah Tynan will sing Illuminations, Britten’s setting of Rimbaud’s surreal poems, in the firm of nine circus performers. She won’t be performing handstands even though singing — not the greatest position from which to project the voice. But the director Struan Leslie explains that she is likely to carry out a (non-vocal) trapeze duet and to “sing at some point from a piece of equipment”.

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Meanwhile, all through the piece, the circus artists will develop a physical response to the nine songs. Even the musicians — the innovative Aurora Orchestra, who have famously performed whole symphonies by heart — will be on the move. Though they won’t, sadly, be dangling from a trapeze.

“There was an early drawing whereby we had all the string players suspended from the ceiling,” says Leslie, adding, somewhat regretfully, that that specific concept bit the dust. “One day maybe! But we have got performers who are up for standing on best of a wardrobe and playing. That feels like really a big step.”

It all makes spinning a handful of plates sound really old hat. But for Leslie, this complex enterprise is a labour of adore. Getting trained at the London Contemporary Dance College and spent several years working on choreography and movement within theatre — like five years as head of movement for the RSC — he has lengthy been in search of a stage language for Rimbaud’s work that may well meet the wealthy, sensual imagery and elastic narrative of the poems.

“When I was nevertheless operating in the dance planet, just before I moved to theatre, I remember pondering, ‘How would you choreograph this?’” he recalls. “I workshopped a few suggestions and they in no way met it. But circus feels proper to me due to the fact it has a vertical element to it.

“The clue is in the title,” he adds. “They’re illuminations, not illustrations. There’s a sort of narrative but [the poems] are a lot more like visions or dreams. So it’s not about communicating narrative — that would be like attempting to pin things on to a line that wasn’t really there. It’s not about which means, it’s about an experience of some thing.”

Soprano Sarah Tynan with circus artists Craig Gadd and Matthew Smith©Ben Hopper

Soprano Sarah Tynan with circus artists Craig Gadd and Matthew Smith

Rimbaud’s poems inhabit a surreal globe, usually tumbling inside a phrase in between the realistic and the fantastical. “I have stretched ropes from steeple to steeple garlands from window to window golden chains from star to star, and I dance” reads one particular section. You can see how circus performers may possibly express these pictures physically. But Leslie adds that there is also a relationship between the way Rimbaud uses words to create sensation rather than sense — “the moon burns and howls”, for instance — and the way acrobats stretch their bodies far beyond the functional.

“You hear it in Britten’s music, as well,” he says. “There are moments where it is reaching suspension points and then taking us over into another globe. And there’s that fantastic issue about circus performers — there’s a transformative power they have. They go from being human beings to becoming flying objects. “

Even so, I wonder whether there’s a danger that the visual and aural components of the performance could distract from a single one more? Leslie suggests that, on the contrary, physical overall performance can draw out shapes in the music. His job, he feels, is to “help folks to listen by means of seeing”.

“It’s like the way taste and smell are connected,” he adds. “I’m trying to make a connection in between seeing and hearing. For me there is anything about the rigour of the circus performer meeting the rigour and specificity of the musician that is genuinely fascinating.”

When I contact into the rehearsal area a week later, the possibilities right away grow to be clearer. Even just resting, the circus artists shift the parameters of physical normality. A single performer slides casually into the splits during a chat, although another balances on one hand and a third juggles hats. The movement in the room has a various high quality to regular: these are people comfy with getting inverted, hanging at fantastic height, shifting their bodies horizontally through space.

All nine are performers interested in pushing circus properly beyond a series of stunts into something much more expressive and responsive. Trapeze artist Eric McGill explains that for both them and the musicians this will be new territory.

“There’s a danger that when you combine art-types they all get watered down,” he says. “That’s not the case right here. We’re trying to locate a language through which the music and the abilities are functioning in tune.”

There are specific challenges, he adds, to matching circus moves to a severe piece of music. In contrast, say, to dance choreography, where moves can be produced, set and repeated on cue, there is an element of unpredictability — and danger — to circus.

“In circus, if someone’s not ready, you mustn’t do the move,” he explains. “Circus bands know this and will maybe repeat a bar a couple of times until the performers are prepared. But this will be distinct.”

Sarah Tynan with an ensemble of circus artists©Ben Hopper

Sarah Tynan with an ensemble of circus artists

I watch a section of rehearsal. Leslie is working with Aislinn Mulligan on the aerial silks: long strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling from which she can suspend herself mid-air. The aim is not just to react to the rhythm and shape of the music, but to find a deeper emotional and physical response and then let that response drive the movement.

“What we need is the tension in between your physicality and the music,” Leslie tells her. “So we do not end up with both undertaking the very same factor.”

As a haunting segment of Britten’s music oozes from the CD player, Mulligan starts by repeatedly falling backwards and recovering, like a person veering towards then away from a dark truth in a dream. She then extends that movement up into the silks to develop a sequence of vertiginous lunges and twists, each striking and unsettling.

Leslie says that there is a “hunger” in contemporary circus to use the expertise of the discipline to express, rather than impress. He points to the Australian group Circa, who visited this year’s London International Mime Festival with The Return, a harrowingly lovely piece about loss and displacement.

But there is also, he notes, keen interest in the use of physicality in much more traditional theatre. His work as movement director for stage productions has incorporated every thing from formal choreography to detailed operate ensuring that actors stand and sit in keeping with the setting of a drama, be it 19th-century Russia or Elizabethan England. We study body language unconsciously all the time in genuine life, he points out: theatre can use the audience’s ability in deciphering non-verbal communication to generate vivid expressive function.

“There are wonderful stories about circus companies choreographing falls in, due to the fact they know the audience will be really alert for the rest of the show,” he says. “I’m interested in that dirty edge. It fulfils one thing in our lives that we don’t necessarily get anywhere else . . . We need to give audiences anything that doesn’t make them behave as if they are watching a screen.”

‘Illuminations’, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Festival, June 10-13

Photographs: Howard Sooley Ben Hopper

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Section: Arts