Category Archives: circus

This week / reporting from the trenches

I sometimes forget that this is a blog; that I could indeed post photos of my feet were I so inclined. In the last weeks, GS has come to seem more like a monster-chore, up there with Film Production, Graphic Design, Liaising, Dinner Parties, Dance Writing. For these have sapped all energy out of me, exactly the way I had promised myself not to allow happen.

What has been going on? Dance Massive, an exercise in condensing the rather maverick diversity of movers and shakers in the city (and somewhat beyond) into two weeks. Just the right size, I say, and a report is on its way.

Arts House has returned to its rather excellent programming: after a season in Sydney, down come Hoipolloi with their fantastic show Floating. Its brilliance lies not quite in its deconstructive tendencies (that refusal to play by the rules), nor in its interest in stand-up comedy (a la Fondue Set), but rather in its playful approach to time and semiotics. I am a humourless grump prone to outbursts of rash whenever marriages of formal deconstruction and induced laughter are attempted in front of me – no soft spot whatsoever – but I loved Floating like I rarely love a performance. On until this Sunday.

Opening on Wednesday, same Arts House, same high expectations, My Darling Patricia return from Sydney with Night Garden. If you remember their excellent Politely Savage in Fringetime ’06, you are, like me, expecting a lyrical, moody, formally inventive inquiry into the Australian social mythology. Great word of mouth is preceding them.

Down at the VCA, Paul Monaghan will be opening some Strindberg (A Dream Play), and Daniel Schlusser rebuilding Peer Gynt from scratch in a little over a week. Both are opening on Thursday 26, details here.

I cannot quite put in words how exhausted I am. My brain is fried from all the writing I have been doing, a tangle of knots the only thing keeping my head up. In the act of final betrayal, my mind decided, amidst reports, print formatting, and evocative descriptions of dance (all today), to boycott the fine sieve I was trying to push it through, and switch to fiction. No extra points for creativity.

Finally, a small announcement. In 2009, I will be making a special effort to see as much hybrid art and performance as this city can muster, and my time give in to. Apart from the fact that not-quite is my favourite kind of perfomance (the mind is a melange, just like these unpinpointable brainstorms of dance, music, dialogue, image), I am also sitting on the Green Room Alternative & Hybrid Theatre Panel. So please keep me informed of all those site-specific, upside-down, one-audience-member-at-a-time, multimedia, weird-arse, and other such shows happening around. Just in case. I spend up to 10 nights a week in the theatre, but lovely events still fall through the cracks, behind the desk, together with the lost pens and forgotten dirty laundry.

On that note, I retreat back to the trenches with a salut from C. de la B:

Marina Comparato performing Voi che sapete (Mozart), in Wolf, dir. Alain Platel.

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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.