Ah, the circus. The lions jumping through flaming hoops, the jolly clowns, the giant colourful tent, the one dollar entry fee…oh wait, this isn’t Victorian London. But circuses are still alive and kicking, especially Circus Oz.
Circuses have moved away from that particular ideal, and Circus Oz has been at the forefront of that innovation. One example is their upcoming show Close to the Bone, an intimate, provocative, limited season of their quintessential work. We had the opportunity to chat to Mike Finch, the artistic director of Circus Oz, about Circus Oz itself and about the upcoming shows.
Digital and online media has drastically changed the entertainment landscape, causing relatively lower cinema and live show attendance. But it seems like circuses have never been more popular – why do you think this is?
There will always be an innate human desire to get together and share the excitement, rhythm, danger, laughter and applause of live performance. In the same way that digital music hasn’t killed live concerts, and YouTube hasn’t stopped kids jumping into swimming pools in front of their mates at parties. In some ways digital media is enhancing the experience and the sources of inspiration for circus artists.
Circus Oz is known for being inventive and exciting – this has no doubt contributed to your acclaim. What makes a circus great, in your opinion?
Circus Oz has been running for 36 years as a collective enterprise. Weirdos, working hard, with each other. The best shows we’ve done have expressed a joyful optimistic worldview undercut by a larrikin humour and ratbag sensibility. The things I personally like about circus are the elements of surprise, risk, irreverence, collaboration, humanity, diversity, hilarity. In recent years there has been a tendency to make circus into a classical or ‘high art’ form and strip away the inherent diversity of variety and different body shapes, varied apparatus, changes of scale and gender. There has also been a trend in ‘contemporary circus’ towards dry and humourless mono-cultural work. There are a lot of things you can take out of circus, but fun shouldn’t be one of them.
Speaking on your show Close to the Bone, you don’t do a lot of these smaller, boutique performances – is there any reason you go for those bigger performances?
Our mission is to entertain, inspire and challenge the widest possible audience, and at the same time maintain an intimacy so that even the people in the back row can identify the characters and connect with them. We like our audience to feel like they know our performers, so that means that the ‘widest audience’ can be beautifully close in our Spiegeltent with a capacity of just 250 classic seats, including intimate booths, but our audience for the main show is usually accommodated in venues between 1200 and 2000 seats. Our Big Top is just under 1400 seats and we love it! The very special thing about Close To The Bone is that the audience will be literally close enough to touch the performers, hear their breathing, see their sweat.
Close to the Bone is all about secrets, honesty and physicality – how will these themes be presented in the performances and all the other elements in the performance?
From the very beginning of the process Deb Batton, the director, has set tasks for the performers, provoking them to examine what the term ‘Close To The Bone’ means and how those concepts can be interpreted using the extraordinary range of physical skills available to our ensemble, whether it’s juggling, tumbling, pole climbing, acro-balance, live music, unicycle, sometimes all at once.
How have you adjusted your work and your props to the smaller space? Will audiences still recognise classic routines when they are in such close proximity?
It’s a great question! The central stage is literally only a couple of metres across, and we are squeezing some very large-scale apparatus onto it, including an entire piano (played by 6 of the performers) and a large dining table that the performers slide and tumble across. To perform acts like that usually requires large stage space, so part of the challenge and interest of the show is choreographing, for example, two people catching the ankles of a third to stop them sliding off the table into the arms of the audience. Nail-biting stuff!
You’ll be touring North America soon, which does have a longer tradition of circus performances. How do North American audiences react to your more non-traditional performance as compared to the Australian audience? Do you find that they tend to be more or less accepting of more experimental circus?
The main full-scale show (called But Wait…There’s More) is going to America, opening in the new year in Seattle, then touring west to east via Illinois, to Princeton and finishing with a return season to Montreal.
This show, Close To The Bone, isn’t going overseas because it’s an absolutely exclusive boutique season that opens on the 11th of December, plays for ten shows only, and must close on the 21st of December. Spiegeltents have a limited capacity and we regularly have full houses and turn people away at the door. So book now or regret it forever!
Circus Oz’s ‘Close to the Bone’ is at The Melba Spiegeltent in Collingwood from 11-21 December. Tickets are $45 adult / $40 concession / $38 groups 6+. Book your tickets on Ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100.