Elissa Blake – Sydney Morning Herald – 3rd January 2014

From the silly to the sexy, circuses are taking over this summer.

Two decades ago, it looked likely the rise of computer-based entertainment would kill off the circus. How could the traditional thrills and spills of the sawdust ring compete with CGI’s leaps and bounds?

Yet the opposite seems to have occurred. At a time when anything is possible on film or on a computer screen, circus is more popular than ever. Why? Because, in circus, you can believe your eyes, says Mike Finch, artistic director of Circus Oz. The circus, he maintains, is one of the last bastions of pure, human-powered entertainment.

“There is a visceral joy that comes from getting together to watch people excel in what they do,” Finch says as the Melbourne company pitches its Big Top in Darling Harbour for the January holiday. “People have always understood that about sport and about theatre to some extent. But circus is unique in that it doesn’t require you to suspend your disbelief. You don’t have to pretend. It all boils down to ordinary humans doing extraordinary things.”

The contemporary circus industry has become “massive” says Finch. “It’s not just on the Cirque du Soleil scale. There are a whole lot of independent companies ranging from two-hander outfits to large-scale companies like Circus Oz. There’s as much diversity in circus now as there is in contemporary music and it is turbo-charging all the other art forms.”

Audiences will find no shortage of options this month. The range of circus and circus-style cabaret acts on offer is bewildering. The Sydney Opera House is playing host to the circus vaudeville La Soiree and the next-gen performers of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Across town in the Moore Park Entertainment Quarter, the adults-only Empire pitches its tent for a return season of acrobatic burlesque, striptease, slapstick and contortion.

The Sydney Festival has also invested heavily in circus and sideshow programming this year, headlined by the locally produced spiegeltent shows Limbo and Scotch and Soda. Circus Oz graduate Tom Flanagan and Belgium’s the Ronaldo Brothers will play shows in a second spiegeltent in the Hyde Park Festival Village while British aerialists Ockham’s Razor swing into a short season at the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre.

Inclusion in the Sydney Festival program acts as a safety net for those who are taking artistic risks, explains the Sydney Festival’s artistic director, Lieven Bertels. “We have an obligation to look for the surprising and the new and for me, there is still a lot of exploration to do in circus shows that include live music and that’s what you have in Limbo when they bring out the barrel organ, or in Scotch and Soda with their Crusty Suitcase Band. We always want them to go that bit further than a strictly commercial show.”

Ross Mollison, producer of Empire, says Australia’s love of sport has a lot to do with the success of the circus scene in Australia.

”We’ve always loved incredible physicality in our entertainment. And there’s a similar sense of larrikin humour in circus that you get in our sport, too.”

The next wave will be ”immersive circus”, says Mollison, who is supervising the installation of a new show, Las Vegas Nocturne, in one of the world’s biggest casinos. ”We’re doing a show that starts at 6pm and goes through to 3am the next morning,” Mollison explains. ”It’s the Mahabharata of circus shows.”

This ”ambient” entertainment spectacular, which sees audiences sample a show piecemeal between other diversions such as eating, drinking and gambling, is the cutting edge of contemporary circus, says Mollison. ”We’re pushing the limits of the art form,” he says. ”Circus is only going to get more and more exciting.”

Circus Oz: Cranked

Slapstick potential: High

Big top atmosphere: Overwhelming

A revamped and recharged version of last year’s construction site-styled From the Ground Up featuring Jez the juggler, Flip Kammerer’s Fantaysia Fitness, Mason West on the rola bola and their rockin’ live band, for a family-friendly show with a social conscience.

From January 2, Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour. $59-$95

Empire

Raunch factor: High

Audience participation: Inevitable

Harking back to the good old, bad old days of burlesque and vaudeville, this loud and lewd tent show sees acts including Half Naked Asian Dude Wearing Pigtails, Lime Green Lady and Carrot Man, Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy performing on or above a tiny circular stage. Strictly adults only.

January 7- February 16 at the Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park.  $59-$149

Flying Fruit Fly Circus: Circus Under My Bed

Inspiration factor: Unmissable

Family friendliness: Total

A new generation of circus performers take to the air in the imagination of a young girl spending her final night in her bedroom before her family moves away. Old-world circus with clowning and magic performed by highly skilled kids and teens aged 9-19.

January 14-25, Sydney Opera House. $35-$54

Limbo

Tattooed ladies: Everywhere

Blasphemy potential: Considerable

In Catholic theology, Limbo is a place between Heaven and Earth. Here, it’s a place where angels and devils meet — on or above a tiny 3.5 metre-diameter stage. Among the international cast are stage illusionist Paul Kieve and fire-breather Heather Holliday, who will give the audience a taste of Hell’s hot breath. Madonna saw Limbo twice in London.

January 8-26, The Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival Village, Hyde Park. $59-$79

Scotch and Soda

Noise factor: High

Atmosphere: Woozy

Backed by percussionist Ben Walsh and the Crusty Suitcase Band, and featuring performers from past spiegeltent hits Smoke & Mirrors and La Clique, this new late-night show blends raucous music and  derring-do in a show channelling the vibe of a late-night bar full of  co-ordinated stumblebums — with possible nudity.

January 10-26, Circus Ronaldo Tent, Sydney Festival Village, Hyde Park. $50-$55

Tom Flanagan: Kaput

Slapstick potential: Dangerously high

Debt to Buster Keaton: Considerable

Circus Oz acrobat Tom Flanagan strikes out on his own with the silent comedy-inspired show he took to the Edinburgh Fringe last year. Here, Flanagan takes on the role of a movie-theatre projectionist trying to keep it together while everything around him is falling apart.

January 14-19, Circus Ronaldo Tent, Sydney Festival Village, Hyde Park. $20.

La Soiree

Sass factor: Extreme

Entertainment value: Huge

According to our reviewer, last year’s La Soiree was ‘‘the theatrical equivalent of being lashed to the front of a Mardi Gras float that is trying to force a Ringling Brothers circus caravan off the road and into a deep ravine.’’ The 2014 incarnation of this circus-flavoured cabaret features the Elcho Island YouTube sensations the Chooky Dancers, the irrepressible Mario Queen of the Circus, and the naughty antics of Miss Behave and Ursula Martinez. Adults only.

January 8-March 16, The Studio, Sydney Opera House. $65-$119

Squaring the Wheel

Educational value: Considerable

Whimsy level: High

Jens Altheimer combines clowning, puppetry, physics and the power of imagination into a quirky family-friendly show that transforms what looks to the naked eye like a pile of junk into an object lesson in thinking outside the box. Winner of Adelaide Fringe Award Best Presentation for Children 2013.

January 21-25, Circus Ronaldo Tent, Festival Village, Hyde Park. $20