Review: Here: Where We’ve Always Been

This is a show starting with such clear limitations: it's community theatre; even more, circus. It features a large, non-professional cast. And it is highly issue-driven, all based around, I presume, celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage in Victoria. All these lines drawn on the ground, setting up a fabulous failure.

Women's Circus, to elaborate, was established in 1991, and has developed a reputation for engaging women who survived sexual abuse, assisting them to reclaim their bodies and to build self-esteem in a safe and non-competitive environment. Are you shrieking in terror yet? I am community-minded alright, but the path to bad art is paved with good intentions, self-esteem building, and non-competitive environments.

Instead not: it succeeds. And it does so wonderfully, perhaps, because the lines are so clear, so stubbornly clear right from the beginning. If there is magic in the theatre, it is almost always in a clear limitation transgressed, in something made to disappear, and something else made out of this nothing.

Here: Where We've Always Been is atmospheric theatre, on the one hand, that usual, pan-Australian combination of music, pretty lights, bodies being beautiful. And yet it's thoughtful. It is also political theatre, on the other, the usual combination of everyman's feelings and rights of single individual affirmed and upheld. And yet it's sensual. It is, finally, circus, physical and mute, a triumph of agile bodies, except that, being a large, amateur group of women, with varying degrees of skill, it is not quite a triumph, and not quite a showcase of tricks. In other words, every possible limitation in this show somehow overturns, cancels another limitation, another flaw, making something quite unusual as a result.

Here opens with gentle music rolling over the wooden floorboards, five women cocooned in white hammocks. Trapeze. Some very simple props are employed: crinoline frames, all white. Hand lights. The performance builds into a spectacular group scene, with all of the performers (the program lists 67) engaged in different forms of physical labour, tumbling, partner acrobatics, small hand gestures, a teeming mass of bodies, small groups in unison. Among them, a woman in a while crinoline climbing a little rope ladder, escaping upwards. Singularly effective, light is the most important building block of the theatre of this circus: one switch, and the infernal furnace becomes a cold, dark factory floor. Women get dressed in progressively more complicated costumes, more complicated wire frame dresses, and still climb out of them, passing the skirts on down the rope. A mother is buried, a funeral rite. This intimate world of women, all private pain and small public victories, is drawn visually, on a big red tent with shadows and diffused warm light, in complex adagios and balances, but also in the meta-content: constantly offered help, collaboration, a strong sense of support, friendliness, between the women. Every change of scene is slow, leisurely, it takes its time. Stage hands and performers will wrap up the trapeze, the ropes, the silks, bring out the mats, take them away, and 19th-century laundries and towns and domestic labour all come alive in this group coordination of objects. When, at the end, the chorus of 67 voices sings imprecisely but with a glowing sense of accomplishment, it is closer to the presence of a popular movement than any professional ensemble could ever hope to render.

If the show is so successful, it is because words are used sparingly, and with acute precision: at my mother's funeral, black pebbles spill out of my mouth. They colour all the enormous motion, choreography of circus, which is narrative and emotion, cause and explanation. There is no need to explain circus. There is no need to spell out why we are in awe of a person rolling out of silk knots and stopping before hitting the ground. There is no need to imbue it with tragedy to make us gasp, just like there is no need to give names to characters and characters to plotlines to suggest the meaning of two women rolling in a hamster wheel, keeping each other in gentle control. Balances of two, three, four, six, nine people, human cathedrals of collaboration, do not need it either. All the struggle, grief and joy of human life is present on the circus stage, and this show knows it, and doesn't try to insert drama where drama is unnecessary. Instead, it brings in language as a separate building block, one of memory, hope and anger, and a few historical facts (if there is a hammy-handed moment in the production, it is towards the end, when the issue of suffrage is brought up just a little bit more crudely than necessary).

Instead, all the pain is physically present on stage, in the struggle of bodily knots, the sheer physical effort of climbing, coming down, of balance, of trapeze, of contortions. A story, told in this context, resonates through the body tangles: my mother gave birth to me on the laundry floor. And these bodies, of different age, shape, level of training, are not showing off their sculpted perfection. The circus acts are often imprecisely executed. They are the physical realism of women, of working women.

Nadja Kostich's direction manages to turn every moment of danger into a small triumph, with subtle intelligence. There being no professional circus performers, individual acts of brilliance would be hard to pull off. Instead, Kostich makes full use of the numbers she has at her disposal: almost every act is a coordinated group act, often with rhythmic repetition, making a trembling landscape of circus instead, a different kind of beauty. Collective scenes turning the stage into a factory, into a train station, into a protest, into a city, are breath-taking achievements of choreography. Without professional actors, the delivery of the lines, often muffled by accents and speech impediments, is straight-forward and has that unaffected, shimmering, captivating freshness that only non-actors can have on stage. The total presence in time and space (actors with disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, are wonderful bodies to observe on stage for the very same reason). Of all the elements of this show, words are the ones completely freed from the responsibility to deliver emotions. Words, here, are Brechtian almost. I was born here, but my parents came on a boat.

Here is atmosphere with thought, and politics with emotion, physical theatre with humanity, and community theatre with sophistication. All these lines drawn on the ground, and all crossed safely. For what it attempts to do, Here is a remarkable success.

Here: Where We've Always Been. Women's Circus. Directed by Nadja Kostich. Musical director Irine Vela, assistant director/circus choreographer Sara Pheasant, production manager/lighting designer Emma Valente, set and costume designer Marg Horwell, video design Zoe Scoglio, animator Isobel Knowles. Cast and band Women's Circus. Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 24-30 November.