How Like An Angel: A Unique and Incredible Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  How Like An Angel: Circa, I Fagiolini, Artistic Director: Yaron Lifschitz; Musical Director: Robert Hollingworth.  Gloucester Cathedral, 17.7.2012. (JQ)

How Like An Angel is a production mounted by the Norfolk and Norwich Festival as part of the London 2012 Festival. Following performances in Norwich Cathedral the event moved on to Ely Cathedral and then to Gloucester. It arrives in Ripon for two final performances on 19 and 20 July. I’ve experienced I Fagiolini before, not only in their wonderful Cheltenham Festival concert in Tewkesbury Abbey just over a week ago (review) but also when they put on their ‘The Full Monteverdi’ show, also for the Cheltenham Festival back in 2004. However, the Australian circus acrobatics troupe, Circa, is an ensemble that I’ve not previously encountered. The idea for this joint venture between the two groups originated with Julian Holloway, the former Director of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, who now directs the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia.

How do I describe what I experienced in Gloucester Cathedral on Tuesday evening? In writing about the event I have two dilemmas. One stems from a reluctance to spoil the surprise for anyone who goes to see the show in Ripon later this week. The other stems from a distinct feeling that mere words will scarcely do justice to the production, which really has to be experienced. However, I’ll try to give an impression of what it was like.

On arriving in the cathedral the gratifyingly large audience was given no inclination of what to expect. We were simply invited to “explore the space” of the cathedral, starting up in the east end before moving into the nave, which was to be the performance space. The one disappointment of the evening was that although I’d arrived in good time the fact that the equipment for the production was laid out in the nave meant that it was only possible to admit the audience through one narrow doorway in the cloister. Joining a long queue, I just got in as the performance started – though with no time to wander round the building beforehand – but many people must have missed the start. Surely the entry of the audience could have been better organised?

For the first few minutes I felt rather at sea. We had been given no programme or explanation of the performance; how to make sense of the acrobatic displays unfolding before us, accompanied either by I Fagiolini’s a cappella singing or by quite loud sounds from a pre-recorded tape? What was it all “about”? I soon realised, however, that this was quite deliberate: the audience members were being left to experience both the performance and the building for themselves and to draw their own conclusions about it. As we left at the end we were given a programme in which was contained a music listing and more information about the event. As Robert Hollingworth pointed out in the programme “there was no initial narrative or specific musical brief beyond the repertoire being sacred and the piece being mainly about the spaces in which it was to be performed.”

The musical contribution by I Fagiolini was, predictably, done to their usual impeccable standard. They didn’t sing continuously: some of Circa’s routines were carried out, as I said, to the accompaniment of pre-recorded electronic sounds. During these musical breaks the eight members of I Fagiolini, including Robert Hollingworth, who sang as well as directed, were able to move around to position themselves for the next piece of singing. Especially effective was the way in which they made use of the cathedral’s vast spaces; often we had singers – sometimes individuals – singing antiphonally to each other across large expanses of space. How they co-ordinated the singing on those occasions and in such a reverberant acoustic goodness only knows. The music range widely, including medieval music (Hildegard of Bingen) and Renaissance polyphony (Tallis, Josquin and Victoria). There was also a healthy representation of more modern music, including an excerpt from La Cantique des cantiques (review) by Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur (1908-2002); a remarkable piece by the Zulu composer Bheka Dlamini (b. 1955), during which the singers danced in Zulu style; and pieces written specially for How Like An Angel by Adrian Williams (b. 1956) and by composer and baritone, Roderick Williams (b. 1965), himself a former member of I Fagiolini. Without exception the music was highly atmospheric, aptly chosen and superbly performed.

However, I do wonder how the singers managed to concentrate on the music when Circa were performing such amazing feats of acrobatics. There were five performers – three male, two female – and all are clearly acrobats and athletes who could, if they so chose, walk off with any number of gold medals at the forthcoming Olympic gymnastics events. They performed routines that called for incredible timing, strength and suppleness. Moreover those routines were conceived with amazing imagination. There was wit too, not least when one male member “attempted” to perform a series of somersaults, landing flat on his face with a large thump every time. How could he not injure himself? One routine involved all five members of the troupe performing complex acrobatics while holding glass vessels of water. Was it an accident when one member spilt some water and a companion mopped it up or was it a carefully choreographed move? Impossible to say.

Some of the routines involved jaw-dropping athleticism and bravery. Quite by accident, I had the good fortune to be standing half way down the nave. This was right by the spot from where one male acrobat performed an amazing routine on a rope suspended from on high. A little later one of his female colleagues performed similar wonders while suspended from what looked like a long pair of black curtains. And though I’ve stressed the athletic aspects of the routines let no one think that these routines were not also highly artistic. Perhaps the most amazing coup of the evening was a sight I never thought to see in Gloucester Cathedral. We became aware suddenly that one of the male acrobats was poised high above the nave outside the arches of the celestory, well over 100 feet above us. He stood there at this dizzying height for what seemed like an eternity and we all wondered whether he would jump and, indeed, whether he was tethered with a safety harness. It was a heart-stopping moment and I shall say no more……..

The members of Circa were simply fantastic. I was left aghast at their virtuosity and courage. Their routines called for agility in abundance, for strength, stamina, self-confidence and, above all, for absolute trust in each other. These people have got the lot! Most amazing of all, perhaps, was the thought that merely an hour after thrilling us they were proposing to do the entire show again for a second time!

Arriving at the cathedral I had no idea what to expect. I can honestly say that the hour or so watching and listening during How Like An Angel was an incredible experience, the like of which I have never witnessed before. And all praise to the authorities at the cathedral for welcoming this unusual event; How Like An Angel and this spectacular medieval building complemented and enhanced each other superbly. If you live anywhere near Ripon Cathedral buy, beg or steal a ticket for this show on 19 and 20 July; it’s an unmissable experience!


John Quinn