Richard Watts, www.performing.artshub.com.au , Monday 21 October, 2013

As circus goes mainstream, women are being treated as decoration not skilled performers. A new women’s program at Circus Oz aims to counter this worrying trend.

On Thursday in Melbourne, Circus Oz launches its inaugural Strong Women Program; a new initiative designed to build a dedicated pathway for women in contemporary circus through a series of masterclasses, mentoring and scholarships.

Gender equity is nothing new for Circus Oz; it’s been a hallmark of the company since its earliest days, says General Manager, Lou Oppenheim.

‘Circus Oz has always believed and actively pursued a belief in gender equity, alongside a lot of other values, and really that’s been reflected in its entire history on stage, having an equal number of men and women performers. What we’ve really tried to do is ensure that is not just performers in what people might call the more “traditional female roles”; we really want to see the diversity of what we call “strong women”.’

Circus Oz is not alone in challenging traditional gender roles in circus; companies such as Circa and Casus have also gained praise both locally and internationally for breaking down traditions surrounding gender and circus arts – but as Australian circus acts move into the mainstream, a worrying trend has begun to emerge in some parts of the sector.

‘What we’re increasingly finding with the mainstreaming of contemporary circus is that females are more readily being put into roles that might be classed as “more traditional” and we want to make sure that we encourage and motivate and mentor women into all of those diverse roles that we’ve seen across the fabulous history of Circus Oz,’ Oppenheim told artsHub.

Strongwoman Mel Fyfe originally studied dance and acrobatics in Perth before successfully auditioning for Circus Oz in 1998. After recently taking a break from circus for a couple of years, she’s now back in training for the launch of the Strong Women Program, and is excited by the opportunities the program represents for future generations of performers.

‘There still are so many great strong women performers in circus, but for me, I guess, not enough,’ Fyfe says. ‘You see many more female circus performers as “the pretty aerialist” or ‘the pretty hula-hoopist”, that’s for sure. I’ll go and see a show, and I just can’t stand to see a women used as “the glitter” on stage, if you want to put it that way. And it still goes on, and it still happens all the time, and that’s really driving me nuts.

‘We don’t want to lose that, I guess, just as long as men are doing that as well, you know? You just want to create more diversity of women for any shape or size.’

Artistic Director of Albury’s Flying Fruit Fly Circus, Jodie Farrugia, also welcomes the Circus Oz Strong Women Program.

‘At the Fruit Flies, throughout the years, we’ve looked at ways of building the confidence and culture around the women and girls of the company, especially the young girls. The process with the young girls at the Fruit Flies is that they start off as these little creatures that are really great to throw around in the air because they’re light and fluffy; they’re young children; and then as they grow they go through a stage as teenage girls where they need to find their place in circus. Obviously sometimes they remain in a more conservative role, in terms of being the female flyer or the top of pyramids, whereas a lot of our young boys actually end up as bases, in more masculine kind of roles,’ she says.

While the company is respectful of every performer’s decision regarding the skills they chose to focus on, Farrugia admits that sometimes a little encouragement is required in order to encourage participants to embrace more gender-diverse roles.

‘Because a lot of our young artists watch commercial TV and they … live in Albury, they don’t necessarily have access to more alternative options, that you might see in Melbourne or Sydney. So I do find in the creative process that there’s a bit of breaking down of what’s expected for young girls. For example I recently did a show, and I had a character I really wanted called The Bearded Woman as a character in the show, and the young female artist I was working with was quite confronted by that.

‘I had her dress up in a beautiful costume, a really feminine costume, but she was also a bearded lady. She did it; but it was quite confronting and took a lot of talking through, a lot of explaining about the history of sideshow and circus that celebrated women of all sorts of aesthetics, from the strongwoman and the bearded woman to the tattooed woman. All that lineage and history was part of what makes circus what it is; so it was interesting for me, to notice that that history’s not embedded in our young girls at the circus,’ Farrugia says.

A key factor to helping young women develop their circus skills – and a greater knowledge of the history of the circus – is the presence of older women as trainers and mentors.

‘We have some really strong female old-school circus trainers at the Fruit Flies, and that really helps with the young girls, seeing other women that are really encouraging and really hardcore, physically; who are pushing boundaries physically and not scared to get the girls to try it, and who advocate for it strongly … There’s a lot of advocating for young girls to step up and not just take those roles, the more mainstream roles of the pretty girl in the sequined dress,’ says Farrugia.

It’s exactly this kind of mentoring role that the Circus Oz Strong Women Program aims to build upon and develop.

As Lou Oppenheim says, ‘There are places that do focus on more traditional skills … it’s the mainstreaming, and you see it across a whole lot of industries with gender stereotypes, and we want to make sure that we continue to break those, and reflect those, and continue to give women and young girls really strong role models across all different physical types, interest groups and whatever else they want to do with their life; to show them that everything is possible.’

Sadly, not every institution is as progressive as Circus Oz, but as Mel Fyfe says, the Strong Women Program really should be a whole of industry approach.

‘I guess I would like to see more diverse women come out of NICA … though we’ve got to remember that NICA is an undergraduate course. So anyone that comes out of NICA, it’s up to the rest of the circus industry to be bridging the gap, I guess, between graduating from NICA and becoming a fully-fledged performer, a strong performer; it’s that gap that Circus Oz are trying to fill. So they can go to NICA and learn the skills but there is a gap between the graduating part and going out there into the real world,’ she says.

‘There really are lots of amazing female circus performers out there now; we just want to get more of them.’

Circus Oz’s Strong Women Program launches this Thursday 24 October at the Melba Spiegeltent, Docklands, Melbourne. For more information about the Strong Women Program visit www.circusoz.com.au

Image: Sarah Ward at Circus Oz
Photo:  Rob Blackburn