'Unadorned, gritty, unpretentious': how Australian circus went global

The Guardian-1 year before

This isn’t a slick operation. It is fresh and scrappy. Out of Chaos will be the company’s second work to premiere at the Adelaide festival. As it is in rehearsal the company is also in New York with A Simple Space.

When that show premiered in 2013, it was performed in an abandoned cinema, lit by household lamps operated by the cast. Now, until 24 Feb...uary, it’s playing off Broadway. Not bad for a company created by seven teenage friends.

an abandoned cinema “Most of us didn’t think we were going to have [circus] as a career,” says Jascha Boyce, a founding member and acrobat. Creating a show for Adelaide Fringe is something of a rite-of-passage for young people in Adelaide, so on graduating from high school – and from the youth circus school Cirkidz, where they fell in love with the artform – they created Freefall. It was, says Lachlan Binns, “really about hanging out with your mates.”

A woman does a handstand split on top of a man who is standing on another man's shoulders Facebook Twitter Pinterest Freefall won best circus at Adelaide Fringe in 2010, and the same at Melbourne Fringe the next year. But even during a national tour in 2013, Gom still felt as though they were on a youthful but short-lived adventure. Their tour abroad to Edinburgh fringe, Boyce says, would be “our last hurrah: one big trip overseas”.

The plan, Binns says, was to grow up after that. “We do Edinburgh, and then maybe travel, and then live the rest of our lives.” But in Edinburgh they met international theatre agent Wolfgang Hoffman, who offered them representation.

Wolfgang Hoffman Rachel Healey, co-artistic director of Adelaide festival, says there is a “fantastic history of Australian circus and physical theatre [going out] into the world,” from large companies like CircusOz down to duos like Acrobat.

CircusOz Acrobat The “overnight success” narrative of Gom obscures what in reality has been a “long-term commitment” to the form, “over two, three, four or more decades,” she explains.

Festival directors get to travel the world to taste-test productions that could travel to their cities, and Healey says circus is a genre that speaks clearly to the place its from. Australian companies, for instance, tend to have “an unadorned, gritty, unpretentious quality, [and a] great sense of humour,” while French companies can be “dangerous, and so outrageous”.

“The fact that we can even talk about the practice in each country speaks to the fact that there is such a massive appetite around the globe. The form can be so diverse and so any company can be so idiosyncratic, even though it’s all the same genre.”

But while Gom is based in South Australia, some consider Brisbane the spiritual home of Australian circus. David Berthold, artistic director of Brisbane festival, lists Briefs Factory, Casus, Company 2, and Circa as among the most internationally successful companies from his city. With multiple shows playing across Australia and Europe throughout 2019, Circa, he says, is “probably the best circus company of its type in its world.”

With multiple shows playing across Australia and Europe throughout 2019 For Berthold, there are three facets to Australian circus that makes these companies so successful: “One, the high level of skill; two, a really high level of conceptual ambition. And there is an enormous friendliness on stage that oozes into the audience.”

Sitting in theatres in Edinburgh, watching Australian companies alongside international audiences, Berthold says patrons are “flabbergasted.”

“Even more so than Australian audiences, because Australian audiences, wonderfully, have got used to it – which in turn pushes the companies.”

Lachlan Binns says that for GOM, starting a circus was ‘really about hanging out with your mates.’
Lachlan Binns says that for GOM, starting a circus was ‘really about hanging out with your mates.’ Facebook Twitter Pinterest For Boyce, Australian circus is defined by its “focus around a kind of honesty and the group energy on stage. Really being ourselves on stage, and at the same time really pushing the limits physically of what is possible.”

Binns says it’s also in how performers relate to their audiences: “We look people in the eye and connect directly with them.”

Much of Gom’s appeal is the way the company builds competition into performance: who can hold a handstand the longest while being pelted with plastic balls? Who can perform the most standing back-tucks in a row?

While Boyce and Binns still perform – in August, they played to the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall in London, with Backbone – but Out of Chaos will be the first time they assistant direct from offstage. On the mats, they lean over conversations with acrobats using cue cards to map out a structure; at the front of the room they talk to designers with the physical language of performers, arms punctuating to represent movement of the lights. What started as a youthful lark has become a multifaceted, internationally regarded career.

In March, the whole company of 29 artists – including five of the original company – will be together in one city for the first time. No longer just a group of friends from Adelaide, the company now pulls acrobats from across Australia and sends them across the world.

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