Robin Usher  |  ABC Arts  |  Monday, 28 July 2014 


Chinese circus performers first came to Melbourne 35 years ago, beginning the transformation of the art form away from the thrills of the sawdust ring to a prominent role in next October’s prestigious Melbourne Festival.

“Circus is such a fast changing art form that it has become part of so many other areas and is now almost unclassifiable,” says the festival’s artistic director, Josephine Ridge, citing dance, classical music and technology as disciplines incorporating circus performers’ extreme physical prowess into their performances.

“The art form is as bold and contemporary as any field in the performing arts.” Her 2014 program illustrates this prominence with circus companies from Europe, North America, China and Australia.

The transformation began in Australia with the visit of the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe to Melbourne in 1980. Troupe members returned three years later to work with performers from Circus Oz and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus in Albury-Wodonga, further developing this country’s skill base.

Melbourne is now home to more than 20 circus companies, including Circus Oz and the National Institute of Circus Arts. In what Ridge calls a modest acknowledgement of that first, more impactful visit, some of Nanjing’s finest performers will work with NICA students and the Flying Fruit Fly Circus for three weeks before the festival begins on October 10 to develop a new show, the Nanjing Project.

Other circus-inspired shows in the program include: Opus, a festival co-commission in which artists from Brisbane’sCirca perform on stage with France’s Debussy String Quartet playing three Shostakovich quartets; Cirkopolis by Montreal’s Cirque Eloize; If These Walls Could Talk from Australia’s Dislocate physical theatre company; an exhibitionVault exploring the history of Circus Oz; and a two-day conference on the future of circus.

The extensive circus component in the more than 80 attractions in the program demonstrates Ridge’s belief that festivals must ensure a legacy for the future. “All Australian festivals were conceived at a very different time from today when the cultural landscape features touring arts companies all year round,” she says.

“A modern festival has to demonstrate the intensity of concentrated performances but it also has to make a meaningful contribution to Melbourne’s future cultural life.”

Ridge says her program is designed to give the next generation of artists opportunities to work with international practitioners in theatre, dance and classical music.

One of the most ambitious examples of this is Hipbone Sticking Out by Big hART based on the death of Aboriginal teenager John Pat in Roebourne 31 years ago that triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The company’s Scott Rankin worked with the Roebourne community in regional Western Australia over four years to create the show. It imagines Pat (played by Trevor Jamieson) at the heart of an examination of juvenile justice where more than half the WA inmates are indigenous.

“The aim is to find another way for indigenous kids to live that means they do not have to spend time in a detention centre,” Ridge says. “One of the Hipbone performers was sentenced to work with the theatre company rather than be held in detention – that is so enlightened and unexpected.”

Big hART is also behind the opening free concert at Federation Square by such artists as Archie Roach, Lucky Oceans and Emma Donovan. The songs come from the album Murru written in collaboration with inmates in Roebourne prison and which premiered in Canberra last year.

“The songs are a creative response to the issues identified by the prisoners themselves and the hope is they can help achieve positive change.”

The concert follows TANDERRUM, a welcoming ceremony by elders from the five clans of Victoria’s Kulin nation. When it was performed last year after 12 months of consultation, Ridge says it was the first such ceremony in nearly 180 years.

“It is widely assumed that indigenous culture has not survived as strongly in Melbourne as elsewhere,” she says. “But the ceremony serves the twin aims of demonstrating not only that this is wrong but also of passing on knowledge to the next generation.”

A theatrical highlight of the festival is Complexity of Belonging which combines dance and theatre performers from Australia and Germany in a creative collaboration between Falk Richter from Berlin’s Schaubuhne Theatre and Anouk van Dijk, artistic director of Chunky Move Dance Company.

The show will have its world premiere in Melbourne before a European tour next year to Berlin and Paris. Richter, who has toured to Australia several times with previous Schaubuhne shows, asked that Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser collaborate on Complexity as dramaturg and translator.

In other art forms, the festival offers master-classes and workshops for young musicians and dance students with international performers. The extensive classical music program prepared by musical adviser Richard Tognetti includes a one-week residency by Britain’s Aurora Orchestra performing three different concerts, as well as a fourth in collaboration with musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music.

“One of the concerts is aimed at children under 5 which is a wonderful introduction to chamber music that many people would think was too difficult,” Ridge says.

The highlight of the dance program is a survey of the career of American choreographer Trisha Brown by her dance company that will present 18 of her post-modern dances, as well as films of her work.

The visiting company will also work with students at the Victorian College of the Arts on one of Brown’s early masterpieces, Roof Piece, making for an extensive survey of one of the most significant choreographers of the previous century.

“Such extended exposure is important in giving the next generation of artists a chance to work with artists of this stature,” Ridge says.

- Robin Usher

The Melbourne Festival runs October 10-26.

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Image:  Opus (Image courtesy of Justin Nicholas)