Old wine in new bottles

The Grand Chapiteau, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, October 28.

THE theme of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem is nothing less than the progress of the human race. The show begins with the thrilling sight of a man descending from the highest reaches of the vast Cirque tent, his mirror-encrusted bodysuit catching the light as he swirls in space. Beneath him a group of sleekly reptilian figures chants and swarms. The distant future and distant past meet. Or something like that. It’s a creation story akin to that in the film Prometheus – visitor from another planet sparks life on earth.

As is the case with all Cirque du Soleil shows, a broad and malleable idea is used to develop a striking visual identity and loose through-line. Underneath everything is pretty much the same: the acrobatics, the juggling, the aerial displays and other traditional acts of skill and daring, performed by the best exponents in the world. Cirque cast lists are a mini United Nations.

Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini in Totem

Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini in Totem. Photo: Matt Beard

This ability to marry time-honoured circus thrills with high-end production values has made Cirque an international entertainment juggernaut that this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. How many times can you put old wine in new bottles? Endlessly, it would appear. Cirque has 19 different shows on the go at the moment, nine of them in permanent residency primarily in Las Vegas. It’s a long way from the small Canadian town where Cirque had its origin as a group of street performers.

For Totem’s image-making Cirque went to celebrated Canadian director Robert Lepage, a deserved darling of international arts festivals (The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Needles and Opium, The Far Side of the Moon, Lipsynch and more) and a noted opera director. New York’s Metropolitan Opera went to him for its most recent Ring cycle.

Lepage has a fertile imagination but can impose only so much coherence on an episodic form. What do five supremely accomplished and delightful young Chinese women who catch bowls on their heads while riding tall unicycles have to do with the evolution of humankind? Apart, of course, from the fact they are clearly much more highly perfected physical specimens than you or I? Apparently they represent Mother Earth’s “ultimate balancing act” in providing food from season to season.

Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois on the fixed trapeze

Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois on the fixed trapeze. Photo: Matt Beard

Best to ignore the over-blown explanations provided in the program and go with the moment. Lepage’s scenario jumps from the primeval ooze (gymnasts on high bars) to muscly blokes on a beach (Roman rings) via American First People (small hoops) in the blink of an eye. Science (various acts of manipulation) jostles with romance (fixed trapeze duo, roller-skating pair). The earth’s mineral wealth finds a frankly bizarre correlation in two women who foot-juggle squares of fabric weighted with sparkly bits, but Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova were certainly spectacular. I was slightly taken aback, however, when Crystal Man, he who set in motion the evolution of life on this planet, was lowered from the heights a couple of times to pick up a chair and carry it back up. An interglactic removalist service? Most peculiar.

Despite the air of grandiosity all Cirque productions have hovering over them, Totem also manages to find some moments of simplicity and they resonate most strongly. Eric Hernandez’s hoop dance has strength and integrity: it is more than a circus act. The fixed trapeze act for Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois is a beautifully choreographed and sweetly enacted pas de deux for young lovers while roller-skaters Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini offer a steamier, more hard-edged version of togetherness.

Kym Barrett's design for Totem's unicyclists

Kym Barrett’s design for Totem’s unicyclists. Photo: Matt Beard

There was a Native American vibe to Garcia-Sorta and Medini’s costumes for no logical reason but they looked fabulous in Kym Barrett’s designs, as did the unicyclists and the 10 men in the gasp-inducing Russian bars finale, in which men are flung high into the air so they may twist and somersault at their leisure. This was man attempting to escape earth’s surly bonds and coming pretty close.

On the debit side the music is live but sounds canned, the lyrics are nonsensical and the clowns aren’t funny. But then that’s the Cirque way. After all these years of global triumph why would they change the formula?

After the Sydney season Totem runs in Melbourne from January 21, Brisbane from April 10, Adelaide from June 11 and Perth from July 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 30.

Circus in Sydney

WHATEVER you call it – circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, physical theatre, variety, magic – Sydney apparently can’t get enough of it. In January more than a dozen shows falling somewhere within these porous borders have fetched up, most as part of a mini-festival within the Sydney Festival or from other presenters keen to mine this rich vein of entertainment.

Festival director Lieven Bertels sensibly embraced the reality that Sydney in summer isn’t the most cerebral time of year and directed a lot of attention towards the enlarged Festival Village in Hyde Park. He put the Stonehenge-inspired bouncy castle Sacrilege just outside the village perimeter and inside put not one but two tents.

There is, of course, a Spiegeltent, without which it seems no Australian festival is complete. That venue is complemented by the smaller Circus Ronaldo Tent, allowing an impressive flow of circus and music events. (There’s a second Spiegeltent in town at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, housing the circus show Empire, a non-festival event.)

Tents are a pragmatic solution to the need for extra venues but they also add a frisson to proceedings. Amanda Palmer’s cabaret show would always have been immaculate, but it didn’t hurt to have a bit of Spiegeltent magic to top things. There was something very right about seeing her very intimate, confessional, conversational show here. Palmer’s diatribe against Vegemite and song about, ahem, maps of Tasmania, were right at home.

LIMBO"s swaingpoles routine. Photo: Prudence Upton

Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

It’s a different world inside the tent walls as performers defy normal physical limits, frequently show lots of flesh and encourage patrons to drop their inhibitions – up to a point. Patrons have to understand who is in charge and performers have to be very good at handling the over-excited or over-refreshed. Even if there isn’t audience participation in the strict sense, the atmosphere of shared experience between performer and paying customer is exceptionally strong. This type of theatre celebrates crossed boundaries and thrilling, fleeting intimacy. Then the circus moves on and we all go back to our daily lives.

It’s fascinating to see how avidly people put themselves forward to be part of the show. Some have a yen to shine a little too brightly, as Tom Flanagan discovered in his lovely show Kaput one afternoon. A woman selected to join him on stage got a bit over-theatrical so Flanagan fireman-lifted her back to her seat and moved on to another volunteer. All part of the risk.

In Kaput, Flanagan channelled silent-movie clowns as he fought a losing battle with inanimate objects. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong, and indeed even more mishaps than were in the script assailed him in the performance I saw, a situation he handled with enormous skill and charm. Also at the family end of things, Circus Ronaldo, gave a masterclass in classic physical comedy in La Cucina dell’Arte.

A late-night act, Scotch and Soda, which runs until the end of the festival, offers a relaxed, down-and-dirty show distinguished by great music and exuberant routines.

The Scotch and Soda team

The Scotch and Soda team

The best of the best, though, is LIMBO, which is packing out the Spiegeltent and also runs until January 27. Director Scott Maidment has ensured there’s tight connection within the cast rather than just a series of disparate acts, the music is blood-pumpingly good and the circus skills are off the chart.

Choreographed as intensely as a dance work, LIMBO nevertheless feels spontaneous and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt that the international cast is drop-dead gorgeous and very come-hither. The exemplar is American Heather Holliday, a sword-swallower and fire-eater with the glossy glamour of a 1950s movie pin-up, but they are all divine. I particularly loved Mikael Bres’s breath-taking Chinese pole turn, which is entrancingly dance-like;  Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine; and the trio of men weaving and swooping on long swaying poles. Boy, are these blokes ripped.

LIMBO is now the gold standard, helped immeasurably by the quality of the music. Created and directed by Sxip Shirey, the score has rough energy and great sophistication. It’s a show you could see again and again.

Empire claims to have the “sexiest, most daring” artists but the show tries a bit too hard to be transgressive. LIMBO, on the other hand, has sexual energy to burn without being vulgar. There’s no shortage of skill in Empire; it’s just that it doesn’t feel particularly well integrated into a total piece of theatre and much of the music is recorded. Empire does have two particularly strong acts in the foot juggling of Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy, and the intensely demanding Branch Balance from Memet Bilgin, who builds a huge, airy leaf-shaped sculpture from palm branches so delicately poised that a breath can dismantle it.

As part of Summer at the House, the Sydney Opera House programmed a clutch of magic, circus and cabaret shows, the first of which was The Illusionists 2.0 (it has just moved on to Brisbane). The separate nature of its constituent parts means The Illusionists could continue following the death in Sydney of hypnotist Scott Lewis, but his loss robs the show of its closest contact with the audience.

Overall the show is Las Vegas slick, with lots of loud music, pulsing lights and writhing backing dancers, although there are moments of quiet with Yu Ho-Jin’s truly magical card tricks and the old-fashioned and charming shadow puppetry from Raymond Crowe, billed as The Unusualist.

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Also at the Opera House, Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Circus Under My Bed has the country’s next generation of circus performers linking impressive acts with a warm story about having to pack up toys and move house. The gambolling, tumbling sheep are an inspired touch, and the circus skills are exciting – although at the performance I saw the biggest reaction came when a performer got a cake pushed into their face. The old ones clearly never lose their charm.

It was interesting to see a young man nail a difficult trick that eluded poor Tom Flanagan, although to be fair, Flanagan had some sore trials to contend with during his show. (A water bottle thrown in the air is impaled on the spike of an umbrella, releasing water and thus giving the impression of rain. The kid took three goes when I saw it and got it first time up when a friend was there; Flanagan gave up after about half a dozen but we loved him anyway.)

And of course it would scarcely be summer in Sydney without Ursula Martinez and her nude-with-handkerchief  turn, Hanky Panky, in La Soiree, which has returned to the Opera House for a long run.

It is cheerful, bawdy burlesque whose oddity acts give it a wacky, distinctive personality.  Asher Treleaven’s Mills & Boon reading was worth the price of admission on opening night, but he was a late substitution for another act and isn’t on every night unfortunately. He’s a real winner. The Chooky Dancers, reduced to a company of three for the tiny round stage in the Studio, do Zorba the Greek, naturally.

The acts come through in a fast and furious manner and while the physical acts are superb, La Soiree depends very much for its punch on perverse comedy. Apart from Hanky Panky there is Miss Behave doing unusual things with scissors, gloves and skewers, Martinez putting on a spangly barely-there costume and setting her bits and pieces on fire, and various acts of physical daring.  It’s all extremely good-humoured, as long as you don’t mind your humour on the rough side.

And that’s only a sample of what’s around in this genre. Circus Oz has also been around, and finishes its regular Sydney summer season weekend.Also on the festival roster are, were or will be Ockham’s Razor, Lady Rizo, Band of Magicians and Bullet Catch. The latter two have had brilliant reviews and I was sorry to miss them.

The Sydney Festival ends January 27. Flying Fruit Fly Circus ends January 25, Empire ends March 2, La Soiree ends March 14. The Illusionists 2.0, Brisbane, from Sunday to January 27.

Casus, Brisbane Festival

Knee Deep, Brisbane Powerhouse, September 24.

THE four members of Casus, a small Brisbane contemporary circus troupe formed in 2011, have a slightly perverse way of claiming attention. They are, of course, ferociously talented. But so are very many others in this art form, which takes circus tricks and dresses them up with elements from music, theatre, comedy and dance. Unlike others, the Casus performers have what seems to be genuinely unaffected personal modesty. Their acts may be as gasp-inducing as the next circus virtuoso’s but there’s no pretention or triumphalism in the way they are presented. Casus’s Knee Deep is a sweet, affecting show.

The members of Casus

The members of Brisbane-based contemporary circus troupe Casus

Knee Deep opens with Emma Serjeant walking on eggs, a feat shown in close-up on a screen used occasionally and not entirely successfully during the 60-minute piece. We get the idea, though. Life is fragile, a notion Serjeant, Jesse Scott, Lachlan McAulay and Natano Fa’anana proceed to demonstate via some exceptionally spiffy, mostly dangerous acts. Want to see a supine man flipped 180 degrees via his head? It’s here, along with the expected routines – ropes, pedestals, balance, strength, tumbling, people twirled and thrown as if pieces of pizza dough, that sort of thing.

Casus also has a few unexpected tricks. Scott gives a luminous example of hoop work: he uses just one hoop, not 15 whizzing around every part of the body, and it’s a delight. In a cone of light, Fa’anana presents an intricate Samoan slapping and stamping dance; McAuley walks across the shoulders and entwined arms of his colleagues; Serjeant pokes a slender rod right up her nose and then expels it (okay, that bit I didn’t like so much, but at least she doesn’t make a huge deal of it).

Knee Deep would feel tighter with a better integrated score. You can’t fault Casus for using Gil Scott-Heron’s super strong New York is Killing Me for Fa’anana’s magisterial aerial turn on the silk ropes, but then a crooning French ballad?

But this is a small point in light of Knee Deep’s finale, in which all four work a single trapeze in many daring and beautiful combinations. It illustrates comprehensively the way much contemporary circus aspires to be an aesthetic experience rather than a purely physical one.

La Cucina dell’Arte, Perth Festival

Circus Ronaldo, Russell Square, Northbridge, Perth, February 10

SO there we all were, crammed tightly together in a small tent, perched on narrow, bum-numbing benches, laughing as if there were no tomorrow. It was instantaneous, delirious transport, the kind that sweeps away every thought except one: I’m here and I’m happy;  there is no other moment but now.

The smalll top ... La Cucina dell'Arte's tent

The smalll top … La Cucina dell’Arte’s tent

La Cucina dell’Arte is theatre of delicious, involuntary reaction. There are no mental gymnastics to go through, no sense that you’re missing something everyone else gets, nothing to bone up on or feel superior about. There’s no humiliation and nothing that offends. Just the pure, sweet, inclusive balm of laughter.

Such theatre is simultaneously simplicity itself and highly considered and sophisticated. In this show, two blokes with a few props and a deep understanding of classical comedy manoeuvre their way towards the preparation of pizza for a couple enlisted from the audience. Naturally, what can go wrong will go wrong.

Despite their names and the name of their production, Danny and David Ronaldo are not of Italian stock – their father, part of a long-standing Flemish circus dynasty, came up with the Ronaldo name – but they are steeped in the popular performance style known as commedia dell’arte. It was born in 16th century Italy and has been influential ever since. Anyone who has seen the comedy One Man, Two Guvnors can attest to its imperishable joys, and indeed there’s some connection between La Cucina dell’Arte and the British hit that will soon tour Australia, as both have been influenced by the great 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni.

La Cucina dell’Arte is on a much more intimate scale than One Man and at just 70 minutes is wonderfully suitable for children. The show starts gently as Danny Ronaldo attempts to illuminate the tent and ends in near anarchy as he tries to keep things from spinning out of control – in this case literally, as plates are whirled around on an ever-increasing number of flexible poles. David Ronaldo is the genial but firm master, ostensibly running a restaurant but there to exert control over his wayward servant and on us.

There are tricks involving sleight of hand, juggling, balance and co-ordination, although very likely never seen quite this way. Danny Ronaldo’s pizza dough handling is a thing of exceptional skill, grace and beauty; as it gets ever more elaborate it is also howlingly funny. You can’t say fairer than that.

Ends February 24.

This review first appeared in The Australian on February 13

Urban, Sydney Festival


Circolombia, Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 15

URBAN is the antithesis of the super-slick circus and acrobatic shows that seem to be everywhere these days. Its structure is loose, its energy is rough and raucous, its soundtrack from the streets, not everything comes off as planned and if your Spanish isn’t up to the mark you’ll miss some of the audience interaction. What Circolombia brings to the theatre – perhaps not its most natural home, either – is a sense of how liberating and joyous it is to perform.

Urban draws its company from Circo Para Todos (Circus for All) in Cali, Colombia – a city with a tough reputation. Gritty images form a backdrop to the action and there are references to the fractured society the performers come from. There’s no doubting the sincerity of their desire to share something of their lives but a fair bit seems to have been lost in translation. There are a couple of very slow patches in the 70-minute show.

Never mind. Circolombia ultimately wins hearts in the old-fashioned way by dancing, singing, acrobatics, skipping, flying, throwing, tight-rope walking and acts of strength, all done with rude vitality and exuberance rather than the cool perfection of artists you know will never stumble. There is a significant degree of difficulty on display, of course, but the feats look as if they are performed by humans who are enjoying themselves rather than aliens from planet Cirque du Soleil.

The teeterboard – it’s a see-saw device that propels people high into the air, the better to enable many somersaults before landing, one hopes, in good order and discipline – is deployed with aplomb and the coup de theatre at the end involving teeterboard and a seat on a long pole is top-notch. The bouncy slackwire act and accomplished cloudswing are other highlights, along with the pectoral muscles of the strong blokes who do the heavy lifting. They feature prominently, and are a wonder to behold.

Urban ends January 27. Circolombia also appears at the Adelaide Fringe from February 14

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 17