Salvador Dalí and the circus are so aesthetically suited to each other, it’s a wonder they’ve never before been paired together. Creator Daniele Finzi Pasca clearly thought the same thing when he put together La Verità (Italian: ‘the truth’), a vaudeville circus act indebted to the masterful surrealist painter.

Dalí’s characteristic dreamscapes are everywhere in La Verità. Performers don huge Rhino heads playing piano as an enchanting aerial hoop act transpires above, ballerinas in Dalí masks sway and bop and a contortionist act seems to defy the physical limits of human capability. It’s an almost-overwhelming visual banquet that could have seemed indulgent, but is splendidly countered by an offbeat, farcical sense of humour.

Dividing each act, the 9×15 metre canvass slides down, engulfing the stage and dwarfing the performers. This painting, a recreation (in Dalí’s mind) of the last moments of the Wagner-inspired Ballet Mad Tristan, hasn’t actually been on display for over fifty years.

Following the ballet’s premiere in 1944, the canvas ended up in prop storage at the Metropolitan Opera. Anonymous art collectors purchased it in 2009, with whom it remained until they contacted Daniele Finzi Pasca. Instead of putting it in a museum, Finzi said, the collectors wanted it to be on display again, brought back to life in its original context as part of a vibrant, strange and touching performance.

Wagner’s original opera is a tragic love story. Isolde, an Irish Princess, is fated to marry King Marke, despite already being in love with Tristan. When the two lovers are caught in the throes of passion after Marke returns from a hunting trip, he kills Tristan and the play closes with Isolde’s suicide, as she wishes to join him in the afterlife.

Dalí’s painting possess all of his trademarks: two sexually ambiguous figures, at once hideous and beautiful. One, its face wrapped in gauze, reaches out with oversized, claw-like hands while a floating wheelbarrow sails away from its back. The other cradles its side, where a big crack has appeared and traverses threateningly up its neck, soon to split the body in two. A dandelion covers the second figure’s face.

In some of La Verità’s more tender moments, torturous expressions of love are evoked through physically demanding performances. In one of the highlight acts, performer Felix Salas dances with a doll, the movements of which are controlled by three performers clad in black. Salas bends his body into impossibly weird shapes, twisting his torso backwards while his legs and head forward to the audience.

As a gesture of devotion, he bends—upside down, with his feet—to pick up a flower and give it to her.

‘Doesn’t that hurt?’ a female voice says.

‘Only a little bit,’ he grunts with a smile.

There was also the hair-raising act featuring dream team Jean-Philippe Cuerrier and pint-sized Erika Bettin on roller skates. As they spun quicker and quicker, he holding her with one hand or none, the audience gasped and laughed in amazement. Cuerrier flexed his muscles and grinned after every successful spin.

This cheeky sense of humour really gave La Verità its own footing. Hosts Beatriz Sayad and Finzi Pasca would appear between acts, usually to discuss the backdrop. As with all the performers, Sayad and Pasca had a comfortable chemistry. They bantered, hit each other and played off each other well in an impressive costume-swapping act. Sayad perhaps got the biggest laugh, as she attempted to decode Dalí’s symbolism:

‘And this dandelion here, which is clearly meant to represent … sperms!’

Plenty of dandelion sperms dotted the stage in some acts, showcasing Hugo Gargiulo’s lavish stage design. Gargiulo coated the stage in a dim haze like the inside of a lightbulb, while sparse props such as helixes, giant goats’ heads and big floral dresses transformed the State Theatre into a desert-like dreamscape. Giovanna Buzzi’s costume design was no less surreal, creating characters who fit perfectly into the setting.

Maria Bonzanigo’s musical score was one of the most transcendent aspects of the performance. At times dramatic and intense, the strings wavered and floated with the aerial performers or matched the comical chaos of an impressive juggling act.

John Shands from the Sydney Morning Herald criticised La Verità for leaning heavily on the entertainment and failing to transport viewers’ imaginations. He’s not wrong about the emphasis on entertainment, but this is precisely the performance’s strong point. Dalí is paid homage to but he is also parodied; a loose narrative about an auction for his painting makes this clear, as well as a dance sequence with performers wearing Dalí masks. The show is poking fun and having a great time doing it; Finzi Pasca wants his audience smiling from ear to ear and filling the auditorium with laughter, and they certainly were.

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