Human circus goes global

11 Jun 2013

Author: Clare McKenzie

Photography: Rob Blackburn

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When Soapbox Circus and the New Ensemble Circus merged in 1978, Circus Oz was born: as one of the world’s first full-scale contemporary circuses, all the animals involved were human (although suspicious kangaroos and flocks of flying cockatoos have been sighted on stage from time to time).
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The show took traditional circus skills, such as trapeze, juggling and high wire, and flung them together with live music and a blatant disregard for the impossible—to create something entirely original. The critics called it post-modern. The performers kept their tongues firmly jammed in cheeks. Circus Oz, in its combination of hilarity and intelligence, spectacle, irony, beauty and—yes, occasionally dagginess—could only come from Australia. It wears its collective heart on its sleeve, passionately supporting gender equity and social justice but always combined with a good pratfall.

In the beginning they were a collective and the company did everything, fixing up the battered old trucks they toured in and sitting down between shows to sew their first canvas tent on borrowed sewing machines. Now they tour with shipping containers and a gang of highly skilled supporting crew, but they have never lost their commitment to that original spirit of multi-skilling and anarchic but disciplined creativity.

In 2012, on a Circus Oz tour across America, a reviewer in Princeton (New Jersey) remarked: “You leave the theatre believing, rightly…that this crowd from Down Under can do anything.”  In one act, a rigger takes centre stage to perform a delicate solo Chinese pole act; at other times the acrobats pick up trumpets, guitars and other instruments and join the band — the Circus Oz ensemble, it often appears, can do anything.  Cast and crew alike contribute ideas and inspiration for each show, working alongside a team of directors and designers under the leadership of Artistic Director Mike Finch and Senior Circus Artist and clown Tim Coldwell. Each year, the company runs what they call a “secret Circus laboratory” in which new performers and acts are developed ready to launch the show in the Big Top and in theatres.

Circus Oz is always looking to push the boundaries of what circus is, to create unique new work. In the show, From The Ground Up, a rigger, a musician and an acrobat collaborated to create a visually spectacular, highly skilled act. In this, a purpose-built hull suspends the drummer and her set of taiko drums over the stage with the rigger counterweighting her as the hull swings in a circular motion. Underneath an acrobat tumbles and leaps, artfully avoiding a dangerous collision with the swinging hull.  

Diversity and inclusion is important to Circus Oz and this value is central to the casting process. Recent additions to the Circus’ performing mob include Ghenoa Gela, a Torres Strait Islander woman from Rockhampton and Indigenous performer Dale Woodbridge, a Galmilaroi man from Mungindi. These two performers participated in the inaugural Circus Oz Blakrobatics Masterclass and internship program. Over the past couple of years Circus Oz has created an Indigenous professional development program to broaden the talent pool for their ensemble and build the strength of their show.

For 35 years , Circus Oz has been thrilling and delighting audiences from New York to Hong Kong, from the Sydney Opera House to a tent erected in a Barcelona bullring, and in dozens of communities and towns and cities all across Australia. The highly visual, physical nature of the performance transcends language barriers and is suitable for people old and young, urban hipsters and country townfolk.  Most recently, Circus Oz has performed in Spanish in Madrid and toured the U.S.

For Mary Rose Lloyd, Director of Programming at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd St. in New York City it is “Circus Oz’s dedication to creating engaging, exhilarating, and quality performances for audiences of all ages” that attracts her to programming the company. Circus Oz was the first Australian performing troupe to be invited to perform at this high-profile New York venue, in 1997, and the success of that season paved the way for many other Australian companies to follow in its footsteps.  Since then, Circus Oz has been back on numerous occasions to deliver fresh concoctions of live music, irreverent humour and spectacular larrikin circus to sell-out New York audiences.  For the Christmas season of 2012, Circus Oz returned to the New Victory for a five week season of their show From the Ground Up, and then toured to seven U.S cities in February/March 2013. The little circus that has grown into a national icon shows no signs of stopping any time soon.