Leviathan’s Existential Leap
By Chiara Giovanni
Leviathan by acclaimed Australian circus company Circa makes its North American debut at Memorial Auditorium and kicks off Stanford Live’s 2022–23 season. Photo by Johannes Reinhart
In the depths of isolation, during the peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, many of us spent hours dreaming of how life would feel once we returned to “normal.” Yet, as the danger has subsided but not entirely vanished, few of us who are now safe to freely move about the world have had the time and space to reflect on this long-awaited return to physical proximity. Stanford Live’s upcoming premiere of Leviathan, from acclaimed Australian circus company Circa, compels its performers and spectators to do just that.
In many ways, Leviathan, scheduled to make its North American debut at Memorial Auditorium on September 30 and October 1, is perfectly placed to comment on the simultaneous disconnect and interdependence that have characterized the public experience of the pandemic. Conceived by esteemed Circa artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, Leviathan first took to the stage in spring 2020, exactly as borders around the world began to close due to a mysterious new virus. The circus art show has continued to grapple with the paradox of embodied togetherness against a backdrop of social distancing in the two years since then.
Yet Leviathan’s premiere at Stanford this fall is no uncritical celebration of closeness, but rather a thoughtful project of international and intergenerational collaboration that honors the ongoing history of circus artistry in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thanks to a months-long planning process on the part of Stanford Live, the production brings together local performers and Circa’s ensemble of acrobats. The 36-strong ensemble cast is composed of four groups: Circa’s Australian artists; youth performers ages eight to thirteen from across the Bay Area with experience in the arts or athletics (musical theatre, dance, gymnastics, Tae kwon do, parkour, and Olympic weightlifting); Stanford undergraduates enrolled in the Art of Circus Movement Arts Intensive course taught by Aleta Hayes, Stanford Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) lecturer and choreographer; and heritage movement artists rooted in the Bay Area. The result is a dynamic, breathtaking performance that brings segments of the Bay Area population together in a genuine testament to the value of interdependence and collaboration.
For the first weeks of rehearsals, the youth cast practiced at EPACENTER, the new community arts center in East Palo Alto. Stanford Live and EPACENTER had long hoped to build a new partnership and are excited to launch the collaboration through the Circa residency. Full cast rehearsals later moved to the Stanford campus, with the Circa ensemble joining the youth cast, local adult performers, and Stanford undergraduates.
In mid-September, the full cast of Circa’s acrobats, Stanford students, and Bay Area community members rehearsed at the Roble Studio Theater on Stanford’s campus. Photo by Michael Spencer
If you’re unfamiliar with the circus arts, you’d be forgiven for wondering how, exactly, such a show might offer a commentary on post-pandemic existence. For Circa’s Lifschitz, the first clue lies in Leviathan’s use of the medium not to entertain with dazzling tricks, but something much more serious: to confront the fragility of mortality live on stage. In putting forth his theory of circus embodiment, Lifschitz begins with an unusual reference—a quote from Andy Warhol’s 1988 Party Book: “Sex and parties are the two things that you still have to actually be there for—things that involve you and other people.” Circus, according to Lifschitz, is the third.
The South African-born director begins his days by reading show reports that let him know whether his artists made it out of the performance alive and well because, as he matter-of-factly states, “they might not be. Circus is actual. It’s dangerous. It’s real. And it’s there. It’s an existential encounter with that moment and those people. Your safety and your success rely on everyone, together, and the audience feels that sense of jeopardy.”
This gravity is reflected in the show’s composition, which Lorway describes as an expansive experience that offers a narrative arc, more akin to an extended allegory than an episodic showcase. As Bay Area actor and Leviathan cast member Calvin Kai Ku puts it, the show “isn’t striving for an individual moment—an ‘Aha!' or a ‘Ta-da!’ sort of thing.”
In contrast to his solo shows, which center around isolated moments of wonder that an audience can applaud, Leviathan is less interested in elevating any one performer than forming an “amoeba in which every individual is connected; a living, breathing, moving piece.” For Kai Ku, a seasoned clown and illusionist, this has posed a fascinating challenge: how should a performer carve out their own identity within an abstract show that deliberately deprioritizes individualism in favor of the collective?
The answer lies in the very DNA of the production, which necessarily shifts to reflect the specific cast composition. Rather than assigning pre-existing roles previously occupied by Circa cast members to the Bay Area additions, Leviathan remains consistent in essence but grows and unfolds around the kaleidoscopic permutations of shapes and gestures that arise when 36 bodies move together in one room. Eschewing top-down choreographic direction, the production is defined by the requirement that each performer “bring as much of themselves, their personality, their soul, to the show as they possibly can,” says Lifschitz, in order to sustain the core tension at the heart of the show—the friction between the individual and the collective.
Leviathan calls on the audience to imagine a better, more community-centric way to live. Photo by Johannes Reinhart
This delicate balancing act is the defining feature of Leviathan, something that, for Lifschitz, has become impossible to ignore as a social and political issue over the past few years as we wrestle with the consequences of “personal responsibility” becoming the state-backed approach to an ongoing public health crisis. “Do structures oppress or free us?” he asks. “Is somebody with no connections more or less free than somebody who is deeply embedded in a community?” Though these questions are universal, Lifschitz sees the show’s exploration of the tensions between social responsibility and personal freedom as particularly salient for a U.S. audience struggling with political issues like gun control and reproductive rights, characterized at their core by the clash between the state and the individual.
For those of us used to thinking our way through these questions, Leviathan—and circus artistry more generally—is the ideal entryway to tackling these issues from an embodied perspective. Both director and performers repeatedly emphasize the absolute necessity of collaboration, not as aesthetic choice but as vital safety mechanism, when creating a circus production at this scale. For Kai Ku, circus has required him to learn how to support his fellow performers through discovering and meeting their needs, a process which has left Letitia Burton, Leviathan cast member and retired Palo Alto educator, awestruck. Watching the multigenerational cast work together and build trust has shown her “that there’s space for all of us, and there’s care for all of us,” a sentiment fervently echoed by Lifschitz. In his shows, “we help those who can’t help themselves. That seems—to me—to be a world that I want to live in, and that underpins the show. I’m constantly flabbergasted that that doesn’t seem to be shared by everyone.”
The underlying message is that our attachment to individual sovereignty drastically shifts as soon as we are responsible for one another’s physical safety: though audience members may not be on stage with Circa to feel this twinning of danger and trust directly, Lifschitz believes that the space of the theater creates an intimate shared communion between performers and spectators, extending the deeply embodied entanglement from the stage into the audience so that we, too, feel the thrill of the jeopardy and the bravery of connection.
As we look towards a horizon potentially unclouded by the specter of COVID-19, we might look to Leviathan when thinking through our possibilities for social reconstruction. How might the undeniable truth of somatic experience and physical vulnerability force us to rethink modes of being together that are neither enforced conformity, movement in strict unison, nor a cannibalistic aloneness?
Perhaps the answer might lie not in revolution or radical novelty, but in simply remixing what we already have—except with greater attention paid to the needs of those around us. As Burton says, “even though the show has been done before, we’ve never done it before. So we’re creating something that has never been done before, and that’s pretty exciting.” Leviathan asks not only its performers to dare to do what has never been done, but all of us as a community—both in the theater, and here at Stanford.
Chiara Giovanni is a writer and PhD candidate at Stanford University. She is working on an essay collection about desire, intimacy, and care. You can find her at @carambalache.
Leviathan by Circa
Created by Yaron Lifschitz
With the Circa Ensemble and participating artists
Sep 30 & Oct 1 | 7:30 PM