Scaling new heights: Australia’s circus love affair shows no sign of waning

While browsing through the bumper festival programming, there’s one trend that is currently inexorably advancing: the increase and resurgence of circus and circus-based shows in Australian mainstages. Once a type of performance typically associated with entertainment for the masses rather than art, chaos has become an important element in festival programming, much to the delight of the performers and the audience.

Anyone who was part of the massive snowfall of feathers across the city that erupted from the incredible Les Studios du Cirque Place des Anges at the Perth Festival in 2012 will forget it. Nor will the sheer awe of the ex-street kids who performed acrobatics in the Circolombia’s Urban in 2013’s Brisbane festival disappear quickly from memories. Cirque cabaret shows like La Clique, La Soiree, and Smoke & Mirrors, meanwhile, are legends.

The influence of the circus is growing and extends past into the Australian festival circuit and even into the traditional stage scene in Melbourne. The Malthouse Theatre has hosted performances by the Queensland circus group Circa during each of its two mainstage seasons. In addition, circus troupes are exploring collaborations with playwrights, such as Melissa Reeves.

In Sydney this week of the festival, the tradition of awe-inspiring circus entertainment is as strong as ever. Kaput, Limbo, and the circus cabaret Scotch and Soda are just three of the numerous variations of circus performances on display this year. Other shows include Ockham’s Razor as well as Cucina Dell’Arte. In addition to the festival schedule, Circus Oz and La Soiree are, too.

Kaput’s sole actor, the clown, and Acrobat Tom Flanagan, sees the growing popularity of the circus as a result of a plethora of skilled performers who’ve performed recently. “I definitely think there’s more circus happening in Australia,” Tom Flanagan reveals.

Flanagan is a graduate of the renowned Flying Fruit Fly Circus, which is located in the border area between Victoria and NSW of Albury-Wodonga. He joined while he was in primary school. “If [children] come and do circus from the age of 10, they never want to leave the circus,” Flanagan says. “Ten years ag,o there was only really the Fruit Flies,” he says. “Now there’s Trick Circus, Cirkidz, Spaghetti, Flipside … so many.”

The development of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) offers a three-year Bachelor of Circus Arts and is a hub for emerging performers and businesses, according to him. “NICA has pumped out a lot more people,” He says, pointing out that there is also an established Australian path for performers coming out of the circus school. “I’d say it’s grown from the Garden of Unearthly Delights and their programming,” Flanagan says. Flanagan of the famed Adelaide Festival fringe, which showcases the latest circus talent. “It’s happened because of certain producer; it’ss happened because of fringe.”

It could also have been due to the evolving global nature of the circus. Mikael Bres is one of the Chinese pole climbers who plays Limbo. He was originally a dancer in his home country of France after attempting to take a circus class at the urging of a fellow. “He said: ‘Do circus because you’ll have the dance part and the acrobatic part, and that’s a good combination because dance wants circus.'” The friend was right. In the 1990s, the French circus school Centre National des Arts du Cirque was able to hire a choreographer with a background in dance as its new director. His creative redirection of their students was cross-disciplinary, global, and deep.

“It brought French circus to the level of ballet and theatre,” He states. “Circus takes dance movement to the next step: flying through the air, the trapeze, jumping – it takes movement to the air from the ground.” It’s the connection to dance Bres. It is credited with bringing the circus back from the stale cliches of chaos. The big top. “It’s not like living in the dust with lions and elephants – it’s something a bit more cerebral.”

The development in aesthetics may be impacting Australian arts professionals; however, is it that “cerebral” appeal of the circus that is attracting the masses? Bres himself, who performs in his show Limbo, is called by a group of audience members who are blushing at those who have been “using circus to flirt with me for an hour.” However, Bres is arguing his point. “When people like something, it’s because they can put themselves on stage,” Bres says. “They see me climbing the pole and defying gravity – and in their mind they touch the reality of what’s happening in front of them; we create a space for people to dream and say ‘I can do it, because he is like me’.”

Daniel Catlow from Scotch and Soda believes that the need for this kind of connection between the audience and performers cannot be fully satisfied. And this desire is driving the development of the theater ecosystem. The other Flying Fruit Fly alumnus, Catlow, began his circus training at the age of nine and has been performing since.

“With festivals like this, lots of people come – there are new circus shows every year … so the challenge for us is to keep that going, push that to the next level and keep them intrigued and interesting,” the director states. “They’ve seen La Soiree, Cantina, the Tom Tom Crew and Smoke & Mirrors – and the appetite for circus grows and grows, absolutely. They’ve seen stuff, and they know stuff – and you have to show them something new and something exciting.”

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