How Like an Angel

“… a speculative glimpse into the angelic… astounding.”

The New York Times, USA

Join performers and singers on a journey of discovery around these sacred spaces. Intensely beautiful music and feats of astonishing acrobatics draw you deep into a world of physical daring and soaring sound, against a backdrop of stunning architecture.

Australian company Circa are at the forefront of reinventing circus, combining traditional and re-imagined circus skills with sound, light and projection. Circa Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz collaborates for the first time with Robert Hollingworth, Director of UK-based vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, who have travelled worldwide with their performances of Renaissance and contemporary music.


World Premiere Perth, Australia 2012
Performers 7
Duration 70 minutes
Toured to Australia, UK, USA, Norway


Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, “The Sounds of Heaven and Its Workouts: ‘How Like an Angel’ Blends Music and Acrobats” published October 23, 2014.

What are angels like? Descriptions must be taken on faith, whether from the Bible, Milton or Rodgers and Hart, who wrote a whole show about a disillusioned banker who marries one.

Well, on Wednesday night in James Memorial Chapel at Union Theological Seminary, an audience of about 200 people, standing in the center of the high-ceiling space, got possible insights into the question from a piece enticingly titled “How Like an Angel.” This 70-minute work, presented in its American premiere by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, is an amazing collaboration between I Fagiolini, the British vocal ensemble that specializes in staged productions of Renaissance through modern-day music, and Circa, a troupe of acrobats from Australia, who have re-envisioned the circus as an expressive genre of movement, dance, contortions and high-flying gymnastics.

In a program note, Yaron Lifschitz, the artistic director of Circa, writes that the show is about “belief, love, failure, ascent, humility, endurance, passion, loss, death, life,” which is pretty comprehensive. But I took the title to heart. Every segment seemed a speculative glimpse into the angelic.

There was, for one, the routine when the astounding Bridie Hooper from Circa dangled from two black ropes high above the floor (no safety net here), as the singers of I Fagiolini performed a sensual, pungent setting of the Song of Songs by the French 20th-century composer Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur. Why do we mortals assume that angels are ethereal beings who float about gracefully? Here was a restless, contortionist angel, more mythic than mystical.

Or there was the opening episode. After the singers set the mood with a glowing account of a Thomas Tallis piece, mysterious electronic music by the composer Lawrence English began, and Paul O’Keeffe, from Circa, appeared, looking a little punkish in dark jeans and a hoodie, until he ripped them off, revealing white slacks and T-shirt as if primed to compete in a heavenly Olympics. Doing flips and leaps, he was joined, one by one, by the other Circa performers.

During Renaissance pieces by Josquin des Prez and Tomás Luis de Victoria, the Circa acrobats would sometime become bodily enmeshed: Imagine a game of Twister played by double-jointed people who, the rules stipulate, must hold hands. The uninhibited Mr. O’Keeffe would tumble, spin in the air and land on his tummy, kah-plop! And that’s not all. During one segment, he stood on a platform high above the audience, then leapt off, landing on an elevated mat with a thud. Why can’t angels be pranksters?

The music included a rousing Zulu song by the composer Bheka Dlamini, which the eight Fagiolini singers (including their director, Robert Hollingworth) performed while milling among the audience, and a transcendent account of Hildegard of Bingen’s “O viridissima virga.” During the final piece, “Hymn to Awe” by Adrian Williams, the Circa performers climbed up, swung around and held themselves horizontally on a single pole, a wondrous image. How like angels.

Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal, “Faith and Confusion” published October 27, 2014.

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival has presented some wonderful multiart projects over the years, and last week’s “How Like an Angel,” a U.S. premiere, was one of the most astonishing and magnetic. The 70-minute piece, a collaboration between I Fagiolini, an early music vocal ensemble from England, and Circa, an avant-garde circus troupe from Australia, was created by Robert Hollingworth and Yaron Lifschitz, their respective directors.

Staged in the high, vaulted space of the James Memorial Chapel at Union Theological Seminary, the work, which was designed for an English cathedral, played with light and dark, weight and buoyancy, intimacy and distance. The audience stood at the center of the room. Eight singers, in black, moved from the choir loft to the floor and back, and seven acrobats, in white, performed on two raised platforms at the ends of the room or while suspended from the ceiling. The fluidity and integration of all the performers was so total that they seemed like one ensemble, with the acrobats creating the physical manifestation of the sacred music.
A female aerialist, hanging from a strap, moved through a series of extreme backbends as the choir, standing below her, sang the hauntingly dissonant “Dialogue” from Daniel-Lesur’s “Le cantique des cantiques.” As the singers paused, she suddenly dropped several feet, as though their singing had been holding her up. In another section, as a soprano sang Hildegard von Bingen’s “O viridissima virga,” one of the female acrobats supported another, who was blindfolded, in handstands on short poles topped with bricks; it was all about trust and faith. To the serene Agnus Dei from Josquin’s Missa “L’homme armé,” the acrobats balanced clear bowls of water, like offerings, walked across each other’s bodies, and built themselves into seemingly impossible towers.

Some of the sections were accompanied by Lawrence English’s electronic music; those tended to be more violent, as when six acrobats twisted themselves into a contorted mass or one man threw himself flat to the floor. Occasionally the choir performed alone, as in an infectiously joyful call-and-response South African song, Bheka Dlamini’s “Umsindisi,” in which they snaked through the audience, inviting participation. Then, in the final number, two men climbed, swirled around, and held their bodies out, perfectly horizontal, from a tall, vertical pole as the choir sang Adrian Williams’s hard-edged “Hymn to Awe.” These were not floating, ethereal angels: The robust, forceful sound of the choir and the physicality of the acrobats portrayed a heavenly host built on strength, dynamism and risk-taking. Faith is hard work.

Hilary Finch, The Times, “How Like an Angel – All Saints Church, Hove” published May 9, 2013 ★★★★

If you spot a queue stretching from Hove almost all the way back to Brighton, then you’ll have found what seems to be the hottest ticket at the start of the Brighton Festival. Put together the Brisbane-based troupe, Circa, and the English vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini, and you have a remarkable evening of soaring voices and virtuoso circus skills, morphing into contemporary dance.

How Like an Angel, a 75-minute show premiered in Australia but refashioned for this festival and, particularly, for the lofty space of All Saints Church is, according to its director, Yaron Lifschitz, about “belief, love, failure, ascent, humility, endurance, passion, loss, death and life”. Anything else? Well, for me, it was about the human body in extremis, seeking to transcend itself: to shake off corporeality, to dispense with gravity, to levitate — and, in doing so, Lucifer-like, to fall, to fail, but through it all to triumph.

This is a promenade performance: the standing audience shifts as dancer-acrobats and singers fly, swing and sing up and down the aisle and beyond. Beyond, at one point, includes a male dancer shinning up a rope to the upper clerestory windows where, to horrified gasps, he throws himself off.
The opening strains of Tallis’s Gaude gloriosa gradually take verbal form out of the darkness, as a black cloth falls over part of the audience. Bodies contort, climb and knot themselves into black ribbons. Ear and eye are constantly surprised as a strange kinetic energy flows between Circa and the voices of Robert Hollingworth’s I Fagiolini.
Fearsome thumps as bodies hurl themselves to the floor; a swaying Zulu song; up a high maypole, a wonderful female pas de deux entwined with Hildegard de Bingen’s O viridissima virga. And much more. Three more performances, tonight at 9.30pm, and tomorrow at 7.30pm and 9.30pm. Join the queue.

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian, “How Like an Angel- Norwich Cathedral” published June 29, 2012

It begins so enticingly. You walk into the darkened cathedral. The torches we’ve been given to help us negotiate uneven floors also help illuminate the gloomiest nooks of the building. It’s all quietly contemplative. But gradually it begins to feel as if the building is speaking back to us. The thick walls echo with snatches of song, tiny yelps of the human voice.
This is the start of How Like an Angel, a collaboration between the wonderful Australian circus company Circa, and the Renaissance music specialists I Fagiolini. Voices soar to the music of Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons as bodies fall, tumbling down rippling silks and hurtling down ropes at reckless speeds. High above us, a man teeters on a ledge in front of a great stained-glass window which at its centrepiece has Jesus ascending into heaven. Will he leap? You can’t but think of the fall of man as he launches himself into thin air.
The show is always at its very best in moments like that, when the acrobatics and the architecture are in genuine dialogue with each other. There are plenty of miracles of the human body – at one point a performer does the splits in mid-air, suspended in silks for what seems like an eternity. The extraordinary feats of the ethereal, white-clad acrobats (we can hear them breathe and see every bead of sweat) reflects the extraordinary feat of constructing the building.

There is some dry wit, too: the performers constantly build human towers, as if aspiring to get closer to heaven. Their ability to balance bowls of water on parts of their anatomy makes turning water into wine seem easy. But the show doesn’t entirely inhabit the space, often feeling as if it’s just been plonked down there, and it remains earthbound. Each individual component – circus, architecture and music – is beautiful, but they seldom explode against each other to make something new. The result is enjoyable, but not quite heavenly.
Rosemary Westwell, Ely Standard, “Review: How Like an Angel – Ely Cathedral” published July 5, 2012

ELY Cathedral towered above us as we entered silently through the South door walking carefully on the ancient stone floors in the semi-darkness, shining torches when needed.

How Like and Angel, a production that is part of the London 2012 Festival, had started.

The tall sometimes ornate stonework of this magnificent building seemed warmer and more alive in the warmth of the late summery evening.
Crouched in some of the dark crevices of the building were live human figures almost fusing with the architecture of the building. Single, gentle notes occasionally emanated from inside. Time seemed irrelevant. We wandered freely, breathing in the absorbing atmosphere.
Then an intriguing primeval ‘beginning-of-the-world’ kind of sound throbbed from the centre. It drew us towards it, tapping into our instinctive sense of curiosity.

Slowly, we gathered to behold where it came from – in the centre of the nave. There seemed no beginning and no end to the sound.
Time that we treasure so much in our super-busy lives seemed so unimportant now. In fact, the whole production as it slowly unrolled mesmerized us as it treasured every sight, sound and movement as if exploring it anew, making new discoveries just as we were in the audience.

Lights focused on human figures who very slowly and gradually balanced, stretched, climbed, rolled and intertwined in amazing shapes and daredevil acrobatics. Carefully choreographed episodes developed in different parts of the nave and the figures seemed to explore every human emotion and experience. We were kept alert as scenarios developed and changed. Something new appeared at each progression.
The fantastic strength and balance of the figures were constantly apparent as different props were included in their acts: tall poles, ropes and drapes amongst others. Graceful ballet movements were contrasted with tortuous contortions, smooth questioning gestures contrasted with body movements of affirmative conviction.

When we thought we were getting used to the spectacular display of these amazing gymnasts we caught our breath as one suddenly ‘fell’ from the darkness above hitting the mats below with considerable force. We stretched our heads to see if he had survived (he had).
Meanwhile, sound continued to form a major part of the performance. Elongated electronic patches of it seemed to mark some of the changing episodes. The first intriguing throb changed into a metallic continuum or one that jangled like stretched cacophonous bells. The singers’ single notes as we entered developed into pure melodic expression and eventually the movements of the ‘actors’ were enhanced with the different characters of the music that helped frame the episodes.

The clarity and serenity of the interweaving music of the Renaissance, the contemplative music of the mass and the emotional intensity of chords that revelled in extended discord contrasted with the hypnotic chant and unique clicks of African tribal music.
The building itself was explored as voices were heard from different parts of the cathedral – at one point the doors of the angels above the octagon were opened to reveal singers sending their sounds below. The musical works performed included ‘Umsindisi’ by Zulu singer and composer Bheka Dlamini, ‘Gaude Glorioso’ by Thomas Tallis, ‘Dialogue’ by Daniel-Lesur , ‘O Viridissima Virg’ by Hildegard of Bingen, Orlando Gibbon’s ‘O Clap Your Hands’ for eight voices, ‘Agnus Dei 111 Missa l’Homme Armé Sexti Toni’ by Josquin des Pres, ‘Almar Redemptoris Mater’ by Tomás Luis de Victoria, ‘Gaude Hildegard Patterns’ by Roderick Williams and ‘Hymn to Awe’ by Adrian Williams.

This was indeed an amazing production that explored and extended artistic expression in spectacular and effective ways. It was no wonder that some of the performances in Ely Cathedral were soon sold out!

Ivan Hewett, Telegraph, “How Like an Angel – Norfolk and Norwich Festival” published June 28, 2012

The prospect was intriguing – a show for the six acrobats of the Australian circus company Circa and the 10 singers of I Fagiolini in the lofty spaces of Norwich Cathedral.

By way of a mood-setting overture, ahead of the 9.30pm start, we were invited to wander about the dusky, unlit space. Torches were provided, but even so it was hard to spot the black-clad singers tucked into side-chapels or flitting discreetly among the crowds, singing the occasional long, pensive note.

Eventually we drifted to two pools of light at either end of the nave as it was clear something was about to happen there. In each was a raised platform, one with a tall rigid pole.

What we saw over the next hour were beautifully executed actions from the six white-clothed men and women, some at one platform, some at the other. Occasionally a singer or two would be involved, as at the very beginning, when a soprano seemed to whip the acrobat’s bodies along the floor with her wordless voice.

But mostly they stayed out of sight, dropping beautifully rounded and balanced performances of a variety of vocal music into the air. Among other things, we heard Zulu-style choral singing, Renaissance music, including the fabulously intricate Agnus Dei from Josquin’s second L’Homme Armé Mass, and more emotionally charged music from recent times.

As for the acrobats, many of their basic moves would be familiar to anyone who’s seen those Chinese acrobatic troupes. There was much striking of improbably bendy postures while hanging from ropes high above our heads, and piled-up assemblages of bodies perched perilously on just one foot, with beakers of water perched equally perilously on four perspiring foreheads.
The difference was the expressive eloquence of the movements, choreographed with amusing and occasionally touching wit by Yaron Lifschitz. At the end, as the choir’s rendition of Daniel-Lesur’s Dialogue rose to a dissonant climax, two acrobats, wrapped high up on the pole, suddenly plunged, which caused a muffled squeak of alarm from the audience.
What did it all mean? If forced, I might say that the acrobats, in their constant pushing against gravity, were aspiring towards the angelic bodiless nature of the voices.

But that would be taking a sledgehammer to crack the nut of this show’s suggestive charm and grace.

The Public Review, “How Like an Angel – Norwich Cathedral” published June 28, 2012

As audiences are handed torches and led into darkened cathedral at night, there’s a sense that this is going to be something special.
As shadows spill across the stone a lone voice sings out, reverberating through the expansive interior, as further voices join there’s the sense of ritual as we are led into the main nave of the Cathedral.
Australian Circus group Circa have joined forced with vocal group I Fagiolini to create a sublime mix of a cappella and acrobatics, exploring the space of our great cathedrals. Renaissance madrigals mix with Zulu chants to provide an uplifting live soundtrack, voices spring from the crowd or soar from on high, singers silhouetted against the great west stained glass window.
The piece begins with floor work, as Circa’s impressive performers demonstrate their impressive balance and contortion skills, but perhaps given the soaring Norman architecture it’s not until they take to the air that the piece really comes alive. A rope is lowered from the vaulted ceiling in the midst of the audience as a performer seems to defy gravity; two silken ribbons later allow another performer to suspend gracefully above our heads. All performed in the most part high above the unforgiving stone floor without a safety mat.
At the other end of the nave our attention is drawn to a figure standing precariously on a 25 foot high ledge in front of the giant stained glass window, before he suddenly leaps to the ground. For those with a fear of heights it’s a frightening concept but the vertical use of the space seems only appropriate in such an impressive setting.

As the piece climaxes, there’s further battles between man and gravity, as two performers counterbalance high in the air on a climbing pole. It’s a suitably upbeat and frenetic ending as the Great West Door is flung open and the audience return, somewhat shell-shocked, into the Norwich night.

Those wanting a clear narrative may be disappointed; Yaron Lifschitz’s direction allows spectators to take away their own response. Is it a battle of good versus evil, Adam and Eve or the general fall of man – there’s enough scope for many interpretations. It is also, despite its ecclesiastical setting, a performance, though spiritual, that doesn’t preach any particular faith or belief.
With each performance tailored slightly to the building there are some compromises; the promenade nature of the performance and stages at each end of the nave not always providing the best viewing conditions. The floor work, while impressive, also seems to sit uncomfortably in the grandeur of the Norman cathedral. When, though, the piece goes aerial it does indeed soar. Musically, spiritually and physically it’s an experience to stir the soul and lift the spirit, regardless of any faith.


Created by Yaron Lifschitz with Robert Hollingworth and the Circa Ensemble

Director (Circa) Yaron Lifschitz
Director (I Fagiolini) Robert Hollingworth
Associate Director Ben Knapton
Technical Director /Lighting Designer Jason Organ
Stage Design Yaron Lifschitz and Jason Organ
Costume Design Libby McDonnell

International representation (please credit as appropriate)
Paul Tanguay (Worldwide)
David Lieberman / Artists’ Representatives (USA)

How like an Angel was originally produced by Norfolk & Norwich Festival in association Perth International Arts Festival, Circa and I Fagiolini. How like an Angel was commissioned by London 2012 Festival. Circa acknowledges the assistance of the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body and the Queensland Government through Arts Queensland. This project has been assisted by the Australian government through the Ministry for the Arts’ Catalyst—Australian Arts and Culture Fund. 

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