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.


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.


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.

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.


Strut & Fret spectacle

Life – The Show (Strut & Fret Production House)

The Courier-Mail Spiegeltent

September 6 – 29

“Life – The Show” comes with some words of warning, “This show contains drug references, full frontal nudity, attempted pyrokinesis (the purported psychic ability allowing a person to create and control fire with the mind, for those who don’t want to have to Google) and adult concepts”. The adult concepts are immediate clear as the bumbling protagonist of sorts (Dutch circus artist Goos Meeuwsen) laments about his going-through-the-motions life. It’s quite a sedate start compared to that of past Strut & Fret shows; this is the production house who has previous brought Brisfest “Blanc de Blanc” and “Limbo Unhinged”. Indeed, expectations of salaciousness are never really met. Instead, there is a lot of comedy and clowning in Act One as this central character takes us along his journey through life’s ups and downs of love, marriage and children.


It is the show’s music (arrangement by Steve Toulmin) that immediately establishes itself as one of its main strengths. Its inspired choices and inventive mashups really work, though on paper they maybe shouldn’t. A clap-along, upbeat ‘Faith’ by Ariana Grande for example, morphs through a ‘Careless Whisper’ saxophone solo to become the percussion frenzy of a ‘Welcome to the Jungle’/’Whole Lotta Love’, GnR/Zeplin mashup. From the folksy ‘Don’t Be Afraid, You’re Already Dead’ to the evocative ‘People are Strange’, the soundtrack is full of memorable moments. And jazz singer singer Fantine Pritoula does a spectacular job in bringing the lyrics and melody of so many of them to renewed life, including a soulful linger of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ and a resonating punch of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’.


Clearly, this Strut & Fret shows has more narrative than the company’s previous works. Surprisingly, however, it seems to slow things down. And it doesn’t even necessarily make things less indiscriminate because everything is kind of random… take, for example, the cast’s colour fight at show’s end. The usual tricks are included in terms of acrobatics and trapeze artistry, but also a high flying saxophone player (Bliase Garza from Violent Femmes) and a dynamic tap number from Australian dancing sensation Hilton Denis.


But it wouldn’t be Strut & Fret without bring of something new of the OMG spectacle sort. This time it is the amazing spectacle of acrobats Time Kriegler and Elke Uhd climbing up and falling within a giant plastic tube hanging from the top of the Spiegeltent, to the oohs and ahhs of mouths-agape audience members.


With its stellar performer line-up, there is much to love about “Life – The Show” in segments, if not the sum of its parts. Its cocktail of entertainment certainly serves as celebration of what it means to be human, even if it is not as high energy or as risqué as the company’s previous Speigletent shows. And with sentiment and beat of its ‘Live is Life’ ending in mind, it is easy to float out with the ‘stand up and dance’ feeling of the people.


Circa experience

Aura (Circa)


March 6 – 25

Brisbane’s own Circa Contemporary Circus is renowned for its multifaceted and diverse productions. Accordingly, the set-up for “Aura” is unique for a theatre experience; the show is presented along a runway stage area that straddles the space between two single lines of seated audience members, with headphones on in anticipation of the immersive work.


Appropriate for its presentation as part of Flowstate, a place where creative collisions are made and seen in a revitalised location in the heart of South Bank, the show serves as a love letter to Brisbane. Some thematic aspects stand clearer than others; in allusion to the river running parallel to the site, the show starts with a silver waterway down the centre of the stage, over which performers teeter in lean and use their bodies to bridge across its expanse before human frames are teemed together on a public transport trolley. In other moments the premise is subtler, but none-the-less entertaining in its curiosity, such as when a beep test with attitude routine transforms into more. And when, for example, a performer balances atop the handle of moving dolly, it is just wonderful to watch the reactions of the children in the audience across the stage, silent in awe and with mouths agape.


Limited space above the stage means that there are not too many high tower tricks, but still trademark rope work and shows of strength and steadiness, particularly in crescendo to conclusion in a routine reminiscent of the company’s epic “Il Ritorno” which premiered at Brisbane Powerhouse as part of 2015’s Brisbane Festival. And throughout the entire show, there is a seamless, sophisticated curation of numbers together to serve as ‘salute to the enchanted moment when the sun descends on the city’.


The meditative focus engendered by the Flowstate concept itself permeates the entire production, making it memorable for the manner with which a movement piece can project such a sense of stillness. And this is aptly supported by a tranquil soundscape in move towards its final ‘Heart of Glass’ finale, in contrast to the earlier symphony of city sounds that come courtesy of sound designer Daryl Wallis (working in collaboration with director Darcy Grant), shared in the stereo-headphones of individual audience members.


With so much to offer, the show is suitable for all ages. Especially when ensemble members are moving independently rather than en masse, it is difficult to determine at exactly which precision performance, one should look. Not only does this spoil the audience for choice of entertainment, but it means that every viewer has their own unique experience, which is at the core of Flowstate’s organic fare. And “Aura” offers not only the attraction of witnessing first-hand the talents of one of our best home grown exports, but the chance to be caught up in its moments of mindfulness, made even more special when bubbled against the Southbank surrounds and the light-show of the multidisciplinary Jem installation art alongside the new open air pavilion and creative space.

Courageous capabilities

Humans (Circa)

QPAC, The PlayHouse

December 6 – 9

Given the way they are heralded around the world as an exciting and innovative physical theatre company, Circa is surely one of Queensland’s great cultural exports. And it is always wonderful to have them perform to a home-town crowd, as they will now be doing as part of a multi-year partnership with QPAC, beginning with share of their show “Humans”, an ensemble journey of celebration of what it means to be human.


The work sees 10 acrobats exploring the human form in expression of the essence of the human body’s extraordinary possibilities. As such, it is one of the company’s stripped-back and more organic pieces, which even in the Playhouse Theatre still feels like a more intimate experience than some of the company’s previous works. Mostly the show is floor work but there are still some beautiful aerial displays of trapeze, rope routines and straps segments. This is a wise decision as the limited use of apparatus allows concentration on the performers and the amazing things they can do with their bodies


It begins with a woman twisting out of her clothes, before the entire ensemble join her, spread out around the stage, each in their own space. It’s an engaging introduction that has audience members spoiled for choice in where to look as performers transition from individual movements to working collaboratively in tumble atop and under each other, layering the scene with highly-skilled gymnastic movements. Clearly, this is a work of substance more than showmanship and it is all the better because of it. Even the muted costume tones contribute, adding to the aesthetic without detracting from appreciation of the skills on show. And as its soundtrack transitions from evocative violin to feisty fiddle numbers, this only escalates as bodies are thrown around in tumble, twirl, slide and smash into the floor, in an energetic display to contrast the blank performer faces.

walking on heads.jpg

The high energy scenes are dynamic, but there is vulnerability too and many instances where gasps and applause are equally audible from the audience, in response to the innovative choreography as much as the feats of balance and strength themselves. We see a human jump rope, a performer walking and then rolling across a row of the others’ heads and a three-performer-high human pyramid on which a woman balances one-handed. And when the pyramid is inverted, it sees one man, supporting the weight of five people…. astounding stuff. There is laid-bare and beautifully poetic vulnerability too when a man moves around a female performer as if she’s a limp doll needing to be bent into position.


The inventiveness extends also to the soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of world sounds such as jaunty gypsy stylings, upbeat electronica, sultry jazz and a folksy Joanna Newsom’s ‘Does Not Suffice’ to finish things off. And ‘The Impossible Dream (The Quest)’ is the perfect accompaniment for a revelry routine in which performers all try, through different contortionism, to lick their elbows. Not only are moves cued to music but the use of tempo works well to draw focus. And so, when speech is used, just once, it seems holistically out of place.


What matters here is just the human body on display and it is a spectacle easily appreciated, particularly as performers freeze in place in the show’s later moments. There are no characters or discernible narrative here, which makes it easy to become lost in the experience of each routine. The show runs for only 70 minutes but it sometimes feels much longer (#inagoodway), given how much is packed into its experience.


“Humans” is an astonishing show that reconfirms Circa’s acclamation as one of the world’s top contemporary circus troupes. Indeed, its experience will have you at once amazed and honoured in acknowledgement of its home-grown success. The playful and powerful physical strength, grace and flexibility of its top-of-their-game performers is as mesmeric as it is breathtaking. In Circa’s hands we can truly see the incredible physical feats of which humans are courageously capable.

Out of this world Africa

Cirque Africa

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

October 21 – November 4


As Karen Blixen (writing under the pen name Isak Dinesen) noted in her acclaimed, meditative memoir “Out of Africa”, ‘When you have caught the rhythm of Africa, you find that it is the same in all her music”. This is a perfect descriptor of the explosion of colour, culture and rhythm that is “Cirque Africa”. The show, featuring 22 performers from six African countries is a high-energy celebration of the continent, beginning with bird and animal sounds that carry the audience also through interval.


Everything is authentic about this unique cirque style show, beginning with its original African musical numbers performed by its live band. This is one of the few constants in the work; there is no narrative as such, just human impossibilities taken to the next level as performers with baffling strength, balance, bike big and small and teeter before our eyes.


The amazingly-skilled cast all show seemingly effortless agility in their undertake of out-of-this-world challenging circus acts. There is foot juggling from Zaina, balancing and spinning even a table, an upsized rolla rolla teeter board routine from Ibrahim and, from The Hakuna Matata Acrobats, pole work and human pyramids into the Roundhouse Theatre’s heights.


Add in some skilled stilt-walking and segments of African dance and the show offers a wonderful diversity in its family-friendly appeal, even if at 2 hours (including interval) it does sometimes seem to drag beyond what could be more tightly curated program.


Moving things along is MC Papa Africa (aka Zimbabwe-born Director Winston Ruddle), who also serves as the show’s clown, complete with red nose. The arising humour represents some of the night’s most memorable moments as audience member ‘volunteers’ are redeployed as miming vocalist, guitarist, pianist and drummer members of a band for a hilarious performance. And although you don’t have to be child to marvel at the routines within the highly visual show, an opening night highlight comes when a ‘still only in Grade One’ volunteer is brought to the stage to excitedly recreate some African drumming routines.


Certainly all cirques are different and experience of them will each be unique. Staging of the show in La Boite’s theatre-in-the-round space is intimate for some, but not all of the audience, with performers still predominantly only playing to the front. Times when house lights are upped for applause also detract from overall fluency and audience ability to become absorbed in its moments.


Still, when preshow signage warns that “this production contains good vibes and great energy”, they it is not wrong. This uniquely African amalgam of dance, acrobatics and humour is honest, real and authentic. And although it is a critically acclaimed acrobatic and dance experience, the most appealing thing about “Cirque Africa” is its undeniable heart. This is a celebration of Africa’s colour and people to fill audiences with joy.

Fun and circus games

Fun House (Strut & Fret Production House)

South Bank Piazza

September 7 – 24


“Fun House” is Strut & Fret Production House’s brand new interactive show, making its debut at the Brisbane Festival, so those familiar with the Brisfest faves’ other works will know what to expect…. kinda, sorta. The show is an aptly named combo of circus trickery, full of froth, bubble and frivolity and much less saucier than their “Blanc de Blanc” and “Limbo” works.


Bawdy humour and innuendo still appear, giving “Fun House” a spiegeltent feel, despite its appearance in the South Bank Piazza. There isn’t as much intimacy, but the bigger space provides lots of room to play as the show’s co-ringmaster and always crowd favourite Spencer Novich prances in as a unicorn to be joined by Trygve Wakenshaw as a white rabbit. Nice in their naughtiness and delightful as ever, together the two lead a band of madcap characters through a fast-paced 70-minutes of non-stop showmanship to a soundtrack featuring the music of viral YouTube sensation, DJ Pogo (the show’s absolute highlight).


Although acts include swinging trapeze artists, tightrope walkers and alike feats of balance and aerial amazement, traditional acrobatic and stunt circus acts are relatively few and far between. Instead the “Fun House” experience is more like a fun and games variety show of silly song and dance numbers, motorbikes and even a ukulele number…  the kind of hyper-real experience that mind befall Alice in Wonderland, on acid. This gives the work a broad appeal beyond just the spectacle of its more adults-only shows and while it does drag a little, it also stands as testament to the company’s appreciation of all the different ways that you can choose to put contemporary circus together. The result is enjoyment on an immense scale, especially when acts are accompanied by nostalgic childhood show vision on screens behind the action, like a “Sesame Street” number that whimsically accompanies an early ‘umbrellas of love’ juggling duet. And you don’t get more fun than when jumping castles are in the house.


Très chic circus talent

Limbo Unhinged (Strut & Fret Production House)

Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent

September 8 – 30

Strut & Fret are back at the Brisfest Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, brazenly doing what they do best in, above and around the tent. From the moment we welcomed to the hot and whimsical world of “Limbo Unhinged” with instruction to get comfortable on the edge of our seats, its enigmatic appeal is evident. Its opening number is treacherous, tribal and very très chic. Indeed, this Strut and Fret show is more seductive than ever, and, at times sensual, sexy and sassy too.

start show.jpg

Although there is no linking narrative, a superb music score composed specifically for the show, ties its different elements together through its live ensemble performance of both sensual melodies and sexy beats. And the show’s elements are many, everything that made its predecessor, “Limbo” a worldwide success, only taken to the extreme as multi-talented performers from around the world showcase their skills in all range of ways, from musicianship and dance to acrobatics and circus routines.


Every scene is a visual feast, thanks in part to some spectacular costumes. And just when you think things couldn’t be any more sensational, there is extreme sword swallowing and fire eating from American femme fatale Heather Holliday. Other highlights include when performers balance on tall bendy poles with incredible movement, a dynamic tap number from Australian dancing sensation Hilton Denis and a thrilling Chinese Pole act from the acrobatic expert, Rémi Martin Lenz from Germany.


Strength and skill are on show everywhere as performers contort their limbs almost inside out and fly through the air. Canada’s Charlotte O’Sullivan and Monaco’s Nicolas Jelmoni are breathtaking to watch in their demanding hand-to-hand work, especially when she flips in the air and he catches her centimetres from the floor; the balance and flexibility shown in their feats make for a hypnotic audience experience. Suspense is tempered with lots of fun too, culminating in an end-of-show retro disco number, complete with performers on roller skates.


In “Limbo Unhinged”, Strut & Fret again cements modern circus as a legitimate art form, without making a big deal of it. The result is an energetic, vivacious experience, best enjoyed with a group of friends and plenty of bubbles. New Strut & Fret audience members will love it; those who’ve seen previous shows will certainly appreciate its seriously impressive talent, but will maybe have other preferences.