There is something haunting in waiting till ten o’clock at night in the cemetery of one of London’s oldest churches. Even when surrounded by other audience members, this is not a place one would normally seek out on a nice summer’s evening. Performed in St Bartholomew-the-Great, established in 1123, How Like an Angel was commissioned by the London 2012 Festival and is a collaboration between the Australian contemporary circus company Circa and the UK-based, award-winning vocal ensemble I Fagiolini, produced in association with Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Presented by the Barbican for Beyond Barbican and part of the City of London Festival, the piece is a great example of site-specific nouveau cirque.

I Fagiolini and Circa’s Bridie Hooper © Robert Piwko
I Fagiolini and Circa’s Bridie Hooper
© Robert Piwko

A great fan of pieces that engage with actual places, taking the public out of the usual theatre setting, I have seen several site-specific dance works, but never one of contemporary circus. Set here, in one of London’s oldest churches, How Like an Angel perfectly integrates into the old structure. The piece starts in the dark, with the audience gathered in the nave of the church and I Fagiolini at the back behind the crossing, singing Thomas Tallis’ Gaude Gloriosa, illuminated only by their faint reading lights. A cloth is dragged over the crowd in the nave from the crossing to a platform situated opposite. As the light suddenly comes in, one of the performers pulls the whole cloth onto the platform. Then his hand rebels against him, and against his will with unnatural movements undresses him, revealing a white outfit under his black attire.

Dressed as white medieval jesters, the others performers lurk around him, performing human pyramids and contortion acts. Elsewhere, two people balance on top of one. Alternating between the two platforms, each of the six artists perform her or his specialities. From the stunning falling angel on the straps, to the elegant balancing in a perfect split on the aerial silk, to a trio defying gravity on the pole, one can almost see the plastic forms of Bernini’s Baroque martyrs and saints. Between the sacred and the profane, buckets of water are balanced on a performer’s feet, while in a headstand performing the splits, or on their head, while climbing a human ladder. Even a literal Kierkegaardian leap of faith is taken, as a man jumps from the aisle in the middle of the audience. With performers and technicians moving freely among the audience in the dark, one feels directly involved, as the person next to you could just suddenly initiate the next balancing act.

The breathtaking circus stunts are accompanied by a great vocal performance from I Fagiolini. With their long performance experience, the group have recorded nineteen albums and performed innumerable live shows, and they make perfect use of the great building’s acoustic. The choice of sacred music, ranging from medieval to contemporary, suits the visual element unexpectedly well, and with I Fagiolini’s nine performers also disseminated around the audience and the sound coming from all directions, the experience is one of total immersion. Hearing sacred music late at night in a suggestive background can be quite impressive, especially if it’s in the dark and the performers are not easily located. Some of the vocal pieces accompany the circus acts, but some stand alone – in these cases, a performance element is added to them, such as a suggestive location: the back of the crossing, or near the altar, or on the aisle of the first floor. They are always performed in faint light or with an action, such as stamping in the middle of the audience, trying to gather it like a flock of sheep.

The unusual association between sacred music and circus acts, and the occasional special effects used in the show, allows for an uncommon closeness with the performers. In particular, for Circa’s artists, we are able to have an intimate experience with them in a performance situation, to grasp them in all their humanity – for instance, breathing out with relief when a difficult act is over. As the voices of I Fagiolini travel bodiless through space throughout the show, it is extremely satisfying when the two groups meet on the platform towards the end, interacting with one another. I Fagiolini give voice to the Circa artists, and vice versa, uniting body and soul.

Presented twice daily, How Like an Angel is at its most suggestive at a later hour. An unusual setting for a great collaboration, it is the perfect way to discover one of London’s beautiful corners out of the main tourist routes, but also a great occasion for those familiar with St Bartholomew to experience it differently. Creating fairy-tales in normal spaces, enhancing what already exists, going out of the usual routes, and rediscovering past architecture, we have to thank Circa and I Fagiolini for this show.