When we were kids I remember sitting on hay bales watching in awe of the tricks performed by exotic animals and equally exotic humans at the circus. Jugglers with flaming batons, elephants with little top hats balancing on balls and death defying tight-rope walkers who I imagine would all feel out of place if they were not performing in front of an audience.
But that was the eighties and while the big top exotic animal circus still rolls around from time to time there is a far more impressive, and home-grown, spectacle owning the limelight.
Contemporary circuses perform without the attraction of exotic animals, instead relying on the attraction of their multi-skilled performers.
While the best known of these is undoubtedly “the Canadian magicians of franchised gymnastic entertainment”, Cirque du Soleil, there is a home-grown troupe who have a “knack for not taking itself too seriously,” says The Melbourne Age’s Jordan Beth Vincent.
Circus Oz has created a uniquely Australian routine stripped of all the glitz and glamour and focused on the raw talents of its performers.
With an artistic bearing that is primarily used for basic direction alone, the “vision is impressive, even if there’s nothing very cohesive about the rough narrative” says Jason Whittaker of Crikey Independent Media. The narrative of their performances is carried by traditional character stories and comedy.
Circus Oz was born from the stages of Australian theatre of the late sixties by performers without any notable traditional circus background. The circus theme of the performing arts company was merely a creative mould in which the directors and performers could relay their ideas to audiences and even after 35 years Jon Hawkes says “the overall tenor of the performance has changed little.”
Even with their growing popularity the renowned performers have remained true to their original mission statement and kept their direction and routines light-hearted. Jon Hawkes continues, “whilst the honing of physical skills has led to even more breathtaking demonstrations of daredevil behaviour, the group has never been tempted to present these tricks seriously.”
“It is a tribute to the enduring strength and relevance of the original principles of the company that, even though there are only two people left from the original 1978 group and that over seven hundred individuals have worked with the company during the years, the shows the group presents have continued to be as consistent and vital as ever.”
The current production From The Ground Up has been inspired by a collection of Lewis Hine photographs of construction workers dangling high in the canopy of the New York City skyline.
Images from their opening performances could easily be of a Motley Crue arena concert more than a circus only the roles of musicians and supporting performers have been reversed. ''We've thrown steelwork and gantries and scaffolding into the mix. The centrepiece is a huge steel beam that we haul up to the ceiling,” describes Artistic Director Mike Finch.
As the Carrington Avenue loading dock prepares itself for the convoy of rigging, rising platforms and other miscellaneous staging equipment, staff are themselves as anxious of the troupes arrival. Constructing a stage set of this magnitude is another inadvertent correlation to the New York construction scenes that these stage pieces are based on.
In addition to the travelling crew and existing theatre technicians there will be a number of ‘hired-guns’ at the ready to assist with this mammoth construction undertaking. One the likes of Dubbo Regional Theatre has not experienced before.
There will be far more involved behind the scenes than there will be on stage. An out of sight assembly as important as the performers themselves and working far longer hours than the performance time to total a combined effort of over four and a half days.
A former entertainer with Dubbo based Circus West, newly recruited Circus Oz performer Dale Woodbridge has taken the childhood dream of running away to the circus and turned it into a reality. “I was more set on being a dancer and dancing with Bangarra, but I went for this and the circus is a whole different ball game to dancing – it is a lot more fun.”
The transition from dancing and gymnastics to circus performer was encouraged with the support of the more experienced Circus Oz performers. "It’s scary when you first come out of the support harness and do it on your own but, that’s what you get when you’re in the circus.”
While the fantastical magic perfection of Cirque du Soleil will continue to leave audiences from around the world dripping in awe, this Australian production plays closer to the theatrical origins of traditional circus art and will continue as an international performing main-stay for many more generations to come.