Van Badham  |  |  Thursday 16 January 2014

Australian audiences’ appetite for circus seems insatiable – festival programmes are filled with sell-out shows. So what explains its increasing popularity and appeal?

Flicking through bumper festival programs, there’s a trend that currently seems unstoppable: the rise and rise of circus and circus-based acts on Australian mainstages. Once a form of performance associated more with popular entertainment than high art, circus has emerged as a dominating force in festival programming, to the joy of both performers and audiences.

No one who participated in the city-wide snowfall of feathers from the spectacular Les Studios du Cirque Place des Anges at the Perth festival in 2012 is likely to forget it, and nor will the raw fearlessness of the acrobatic ex-street kids in Circolombia’s Urban at the 2013 Brisbane festival fade fast from memory. Circus cabaret line-ups such as La Clique, La Soirée and Smoke & Mirrors, meanwhile, are the stuff of legend.

And the influence of circus continues to grow, extending beyond the Australian festival circuit and into the traditionally conservative theatre scene: Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre has featured shows by Queensland circus company Circa in each of its last two mainstage seasons, while circus ensembles are broaching developmental collaborations with playwrights such as Melissa Reeves.

In Sydney this festival fortnight, the tradition of powerful circus content is as strong as ever. Kaput, Limbo and the circus cabaret Scotch and Soda are but three of many variations of circus performance on show this year. Others include Ockham’s Razor and Cucina Dell’Arte, while beyond the festival programme, Circus Oz and La Soirée are also in town.

Kaput’s solo performer, clown and acrobat Tom Flanagan, sees the popularity of circus as the result, in part, of a critical mass of talented performers who’ve come through in recent years. “I definitely think there’s more circus happening in Australia,” he says.

Flanagan is an alumnus of the famous Flying Fruit Fly Circus, based in the NSW/Victoria border country of Albury-Wodonga, which he joined when he was still at primary school. “If [children] come and do circus from the age of 10, they never want to leave circus,” he explains. “Ten years ago there was only really the Fruit Flies,” he explains. “Now there’s Trick Circus, Cirkidz, Spaghetti, Flipside … so many.”

The creation of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA), which offers a three-year bachelor of circus arts course, is a hothouse for new performers and companies, he says. “NICA has pumped out a lot more people,” he says, explaining there also exists an established Australian trajectory for performers out of circus school. “I’d say it’s grown from the Garden of Unearthly Delights and their programming,” says Flanagan of the famous Adelaide festival fringe venue that showcases new circus talent. “It’s happened because of certain producers, it’s happened because of fringe.”

It also, perhaps, happened because of the changing international face of circus. Mikael Bres, a Chinese pole climber with Limbo, originally trained as a dancer in his native France, trying a circus course at the encouragement of a friend. “He said: ‘Do circus because you’ll have the dance part and the acrobatic part, and that’s a good combination because dance wants circus.’” The friend was right; in the 90s, French circus school Centre National des Arts du Cirque appointed a choreographer with a dance background as its new director and creative redirection was cross-discipline, international and profound.

“It brought French circus to the level of ballet and theatre,” he says. “Circus takes dance movement to the next step: flying through the air, the trapeze, jumping – it takes movement to the air from the ground.” It was the relationship with dance that Bres credits with circus liberation from the cliches of the big top. “It’s not like living in the dust with lions and elephants – it’s something a bit more cerebral.”

That development in aesthetic might well be influencing Australian arts programmers, but is it really the “cerebral” appeal of circus that’s drawing the crowds? Bres’ own show, Limbo, has been described by blushing audience members as “using circus to flirt with me for an hour”, but Bres argues his case. “When people like something, it’s because they can put themselves on stage,” he explains. “They see me climbing the pole and defying gravity – and in their mind they touch the reality of what’s happening in front of them; we create a space for people to dream and say ‘I can do it, because he is like me’.”

Daniel Catlow from Scotch and Soda believes the appetite for this connection between audiences and performers can never be entirely sated – and it’s this hunger driving the expansion of the theatre ecology. Another Flying Fruit Fly alumnus, Catlow began circus training when he was nine, and has been a performer ever since.

“With festivals like this, lots of people come – there are new circus shows every year … so the challenge for us is to keep that going, push that to the next level and keep them intrigued and interesting,” he says. “They’ve seen La Soirée, Cantina, the Tom Tom Crew and Smoke & Mirrors – and the appetite for circus grows and grows, absolutely. They’ve seen stuff, and they know stuff – and you have to show them something new and something exciting.”

IMAGE: Scotch and Soda the the Sydney Festival Scotch and Soda the the Sydney Festival Photograph: AAP