Depart (Tower Hamlets Cemetery)

Australian company Circa turn a graveyard into a big top with their new piece for LIFT

Circus is well placed to suggest death. It is an art-form that lets you see the human body – muscles at full stretch or strain, joints turning in their sockets – but at the same time seems to free it from the laws of life. In circus, bodies can fly up like spirits and dissolve like memories. People can become immaterial.

A special LIFT commission, Depart sees the Australian troupe Circa turning a graveyard into a big top. Tower Hamlets Cemetery is a thicket – so dense that the city outside it seems to disappear. The canopy blocks out the light and, as dusk descends, green leaves turn the same grey as the graves that jut out of the ground – not at regimented angles in ruled lines, but clumped together and lopsided like something out of a Brontë novel. In the trees above, bound up by ropes, bodies hang limp; their glassy eyes staring hollow stares.

One of the revelations of contemporary circus is quite how absorbent the art-form can be. The same actions – and there are only so many tricks and turns on any piece of apparatus – soak up different meanings depending on context and choreography, the way in which they're performed. In Depart , every act is laced with death.

A duet on the Chinese poet, two men mirroring one another like a ying yang symbol, becomes a dance between body and soul. Like Orpheus and Eurydice, they seem to be in separate realms: one standing upright, the other hanging upside down. A cyr wheel routine looks like a freefall through the air and, as the spin-cycle speeds up to a stop, resembles a fight against water. Elsewhere, bodies hang in the air like drowned corpses or kidnap victims bound up in aerial ropes. A choir in black veils sing ghostly choruses, and the sound of opera shimmers through the trees.

However, as so often with site-specific work, logistics get in the way. This would be wonderful, were it not for all the other people. Instead, it’s mostly a slow trudge down winding muddy paths. The insistence on absolute silence adds an eeriness to this death march, but it’s punctured by a certain banality.

It’s curious. Onstage, circus can seem so ethereal and otherworldly. Against a backdrop of trees and shadows, it looks almost lumpen and artificial – so many carabiners and counterweights. Costumes that might pass as abstract colours become, instead, the grubby white tracksuits they really are. Security-style floodlights don’t help in the slightest. In illuminating, they chase away any atmosphere whatsoever. You’re left with some people, stupidly dressed, hanging around in a wood.

Depart runs at Tower Hamlets Cemetery as part of LIFT until 26 June.