First nation circus conversations

Chasing Smoke (Casus Circus and Cluster Arts in Partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

October 23 – November 3

Contemporary circus as an art form is a notion pioneered in Queensland. Its ongoing fashion is also certainly evident, especially in works such as Casus Circus’ award-winning “Chasing Smoke”, featuring Australia’s only Indigenous contemporary circus ensemble led by Casus co-founder Netano Faanana. The 2017 Green Room Award winner for Best Contemporary Circus delivers upon the expectation that comes with this acclaim in many ways as it presents tales from the world’s oldest living culture, told passionately by dreamtime story descendants, re-imagined through circus and comedy for a 2018 context.

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The first Australian circus performers, Lara Croydon, Ally Humphries, Harley Mann, Jack Sheppard, Dylan Singh and Pearl Tia Thompson are certainly talented, embodying an impressive balance of grace and power in their striking aerial, dance and floor-based routines. This is particularly the case when joined together as an ensemble, pyramiding atop each other or walking, as one performer, does, across the heads of a line of others. Individually, they demonstrate a range of skills, from Dylan Singh’s gymnastic circus core strength and controlled energy to Ally Humphris’s beautifully-lyrical dance flexibility. Indeed, the show’s standout sequences come courtesy of individual routines, as performers attempt to answer the show’s essential thematic question ‘who am I?, as they each move to the soundtrack of a pre-recorded monologue share of their connection to country. More than just this, these deeply personal and often moving moments, also reveal pain and family trauma in their explanation of the multi-generational effects of government policy.

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What isn’t quite as successful are the show’s sketch comedy sequences, which feel comparatively heavy-handed. Comedy does work on some occasions, however; for example, when initially confused song content choices are quickly revealed to be quite clever as Pearl Tia Thompson expertly lip-syncs and circuses the audience through an eclectic mashup of songs from artists like Kermit the Frog, Destiny’s Child and Midnight Oil, all the while with running costumes changes.

Certainly there is an infectious energy to many of the show’s segments, however, in curation together, they sometimes lack fluent cohesion, which results in a confused overall identity (ironically, given the show’s intent). The opening and closing scenes of “Chasing Smoke”, in particular pull no punches in their discomforting thought-provocation, directly addressing clichés of Aboriginal life and concluding with a cooking segment as a metaphor for racial prejudice. However, such overt self-awareness serves only to starkly contrast the tone of other sections sandwiched in between.
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In its examination of identity, adversity and achievement, “Chasing Smoke” is a good show. It could, however, be a great show with a more paired-back and edited approach, rather than a more-is-more onslaught of ideas, especially given its only hour-long duration. Still, while it is not the slickest of shows, its enthusiastic and talented cast give it a core appeal that allows its share of personal stories through circus, comedy and physical theatre to either ignite or re-engage conversations around its issues.

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