Fiafia fun

Auntie’s Fiafia Night

South Bank Piazza

September 8 – 11       

“Auntie’s Fiafia Night” is about paying respect to the woman who have shaped us in a multitude of ways. It’s a concept cemented from its outset with pre-show celebration in song, appearance on a couch to the side of the stage of the night’s ready-to-be impressed Aunties and warm welcome from emcee Lana Siligia.

Also immediately clear is the work’s passionate celebration of culture, art and resilience, but also collaboration… most notably between the traditional dance, ceremony and song of local Pasifika community groups and the jaw-dropping acrobatic skill of world-renowned Brisbane circus group Casus. From the show’s very first number the circus group bends, balances and later juggles its way impressively around and above the stage. Indeed, the skilled performers appear frequently throughout the 75-minute work, with their astonishing pyramid formations, human skipping ropes and contortions into and jump through circus rings, featuring in complement of the variety of other performance groups that feature as part of its program of commemoration of Polynesian legends, stories and culture in music, song and dance.  

The integration is seamlessly crafted, such as when a hoop routine emerges from a Tahitian number that begins with explanation of the graceful Hawaiian hula dance’s inspiration of the hula hoop movement around different parts of the body. Most notable amongst the early feats, however, is when Lachlan Macaulay walks across the outstretched arms of another atop a pyramid of performers and then when he precariously balances atop a build of seven chairs and two benches on a table. And when the gravity-defying feats take advantage of the heights of the Suncorp piazza space such as when Jessie Scott hangs upside down to dangle Macaulay from his head with an aerial strap, audience members are left amazed by the spectacle. A further Casus highlight comes courtesy of Ela Bartilimo’s aerial rope work and footfire of a flaming archery arrow while upside down on hand balance stands, to the swelling sound of high-energy drums.  

Beautiful as any of the night’s vocals are, under Airileke Ingram’s musical direction it is percussion that sits at the heart of the show’s high energy, oceanic score. There are some light and shade moments that come courtesy of lyrical guitar sounds and quieter performative pieces like share of a Samoan myth of warning against vanity from a woman within our mirrors, but before long things are back to crowd-pleasing colour, movement and exuberant energy in celebration of a range of cultures.

With musical numbers that retrace genealogy back to ancestral times, “Auntie’s Fiafia Night” carries a clear message of the collective power of community. With so much often happening on stage audiences are spoiled for choice of where to look as Maori Kapa Haka, Samoan seated dancing, Cook Island routines, Tahitian dance and even fire twirling sees 80+ performers providing the show’s entertainment. It is the mix of traditional and contemporary, however, that gives the work so much of its appeal, which is especially seen when sassy House of Alexander performers shante onto to stage to vogue some fierce drag death-drop type moves all with appropriate accompanying attitude.

With cheeky humour and an intrinsically inclusive sensibility, “Auntie’s Fiafia Night” is fun for all ages. The Samoan night of celebration of family, lineage and culture’s combine of gravity-defying acrobatic feats with traditional slap and fire dances, chants and ancient urban legend stories, is a delightful experience from start to finish that like its Brisbane Festival run is over all too soon.

Contemporary collision

Collision (Casus Circus)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

July 14 – 18

What happens when you mix three circus performers and three street performers? Than answer lies within experience of “Collision”, and the answer is absolutely appealing. As theatre-goers of this oft-called circus city, audience members familiar with pioneering contemporary circus company Casus Circus know to expect something special, however, the collaboration with urban street dance mover and shaker Mad Dance House, under the direction of Natano Fa’anana, takes it to all sorts of new levels.

Things start curiously, pre-show with a bunch of green grapes pedestaled amid a binge of blue lighting. The fruit becomes a playful motif that features from time to time, but doesn’t contribute much beyond its frivolity. So, it seems to be an authentic introduction to a show that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously and thus is infectious in its appeal… along with moves leading to ‘that’s amazing” type audience commentary.

Ché Pritchard’s choreography is impressive, in both its boldness and subtly. The first of a range of short scenes starts with the ensemble of performers Ela Bartilimo, Riley Colquist, Sam Evans, Ben Garcia, Amy Stuart and Wanida Serce lined across the stage, making small individual movements before morphing into one being to animal across the space. Immediately, there is a lot going on, with restrained integration vigorous Shiva sorts of traditional Indian hand gestures and shades of sitar sounds apparent in its initial soundtrack.

The dynamic soundtrack (Music Dessign by Natano Fa’anana, Jesse Scott, Che Pritchard and Andrew Haden) heightens things from there, including with some ‘Superstition’ and Salt-N-Pepa familiarity. Truly wonderful mashups and snippet hints at familiar beats vibrantly add to the transformative effect of what is occurring on stage. The sentiment is not all one-note though, with sound and lighting combining to create an early intimate, lyrical moment in the ‘rain’ before Wanida Serce (who we saw in Pink Matter’s “The Type” last year) explodes into a vigorous dance number. And her costume is sensational! Indeed, all of the costumes are striking, while still being simple and versatile.  

“Collision” is first class in its consideration of a distinct and exciting aesthetic to match the on-stage showcase of acrobatic and athletic prowess. There is no narrative focus to the show, however, abstract as it might be, there is not denying its energy in the celebration of the performers’ physical languages. The choreography demands athleticism and the performers all rise to its risk-taking challenges, putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment.

Acrobat Amy Stuart is sensational in her provision of a slick early highlight which sees her simultaneously balancing and twirling multiple hula hoops. She also shows formidable strength and focussed control in anchor of a later human tower of the three female performers. Circus acts are all executed with precision. Ela Bartilomo’s aerial rope work and her elevated hand balance routine, in which she intertwines as one with Riley Colquist is a mix of strength, skill and beauty. Colquest is an astonishing contortionist of extreme flexibility and enticing facial expressions that tease the audience during a balancing routine upon the tallest platform heels you are ever likely to see.

Dance numbers are also appealing in their whimsy. There is a dance off to Cornershop’s ‘Brimful of Asha’ while apparently awaiting a bus (#asyoudo), and Sam Evans gives us a brilliant robotic routine, especially in rapid rewind. At one point he also astonishingly routines with just his chest and torso as instruments. Even when miming a circus performance, he is thoroughly entertaining. Ben Garcia, meanwhile, amps up the audience even more with a late breakdance show of impressive power moves, which only adds to the infectious energy of the show’s experience.

Even as individuals spin out of line to a soundtrack of frenzied static, there is still a clear sense of the performers working together in what turns out to be a perfect partnership. “Collision” is a charismatic and thrilling showcase of our city’s contemporary circus and street dance talent. And best of all, you don’t need to know a lot about dance to enjoy it, know it is good or be proud of it as a Brisbane collaboration.

Who says sheep don’t fly?

Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show (Circa)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

March 2 – 21

Everyone in the audience is excited for opening night of “Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show”. It is a thrill that is only amplified as the curtain is opened to reveal more than just the initially seen large present box at the front of the stage. The collaboration between acclaimed Brisbane-based contemporary circus company Circa and Aardman Animations, creators of the multi-award-winning TV series “Shaun the Sheep” devised by Richard Starzak, is a spectacle of staging, using the height and depth of QPAC’s Lyric Theatre to full advantage to roll a hill of astroturf green down from Mossy Bottom Farm. It is in this meadow where everyone’s favourite sheep Shaun and his flock of animal friends animals interact and play unbeknown to the oblivious Farmer, presenting, as they do, un-baaa-lievable circus skills and thrills while a digital billboard (Video Director Craig Wilkinson) orients the audience as to proceedings, including with clips from the original movie.

Introduction to the show’s characters is accompanied by a dynamic soundscape such as when menacing music complements appearance of a red-rag determined bull with a wheelbarrow. And before long, we settle into a story of sorts told in short snippet scenes that suit its young audience demographic. An eclectic Act One ends with the animals accidently cutting the power fuelling the Farmers’ tv, meaning that they must improvise with the chaotic-at-first circus of the show’s title that takes up Act Two. A live video of the on-stage antics not only captures the circus acts from a different perspective, but allows for some additional humour as the animals play things up for the camera.

Whoever says sheep don’t fly, has clearly never seen the extreme physicality and awe-inspiring feats that feature at the core of Circa shows. And in keeping with the intricacy of the company’s artform, the all-ages opening night audience is audibly astounded by the range of tricks that showcase the agility, strength and skill of the company’s performers. With hoop diving, towering hand balances, aerial hoops and silks amongst others, there is much to awe over. Of particular note are a triple trapeze act and a late-show multi-person Chinese pole routine that sees a performer balance momentarily unattached on the mid-air outstretched body of another. Whether it be by occurrence on a see-saw, in interaction with a runaway tyre or taking jump-rope to new heights, movement is integrated so as to feel like more than just a stunt. And when lights go out things really sparkle courtesy of some neon juggling pins. 

More than a typical circus show of skills, “Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show”, which is created and directed by Yaron Lifschitz is about character connection and Circa’s performers embrace this distinction with their every gesture and facial expression. And, of course, the splats and spills for comic effect are appreciated by children in the audience. The physical slapstick comedy of the postman in interaction with a pesky, protective dog creates a comedy highlight for these younger audience members. The functional, but still detailed costumes of the excited high-tailed sheepdog Bitzer and alike, meanwhile, are appreciated by all.

While the show’s creatives have crafted an abundant visual spectacle, this is enhanced by wit that is all the more appreciated though the show’s lack of verbal communication (apart from some gibberish speech from the farmer and the postman, as it would be from the perspective of our protagonist animals). There is still, however, a break in the fourth wall by the Farmer, to engender some audience participation and emotive ‘baas’ of appropriate exclamation from the sheep. The resulting largely-visual humour is such that it can be appreciated by both young and older audience members alike through, for example, a punny ‘A Star is Shorn’ solo section and a woeful animal attempt at creating their own claymation.

If modern circus portrays characters and tells stories, then “Shaun The Sheep’s Circus Show” is modern circus at its playfully charming best. Indeed, the heart-warming show is shear brilliance, experience of which is the gift that keeps giving in recollection of feats displayed with a deceptive appearance of ease.

Random acts of fineness

Dionysus (Tom Oliver Productions)

Wynnum Opera House

November 14

“It will random cabaret acts and probably a bit naughty”….It turns out that my pre-emptive summary to Saturday night’s +1 was an entirely appropriate summary of what was in store for us in worship of the god of wine, theatre and ritual madness at Wynnum Fringe Festival’s “Dionysus”. For a start, three of its early scenes feature a giant fridge box. To finish, there is an uplifting (#literally) “Dirty Dancing” routine unlike anything you are likely to have seen before, especially in its ultimate deflation. In between, is a whole lot of weird and wonderful stuff and the fact that it is being presented in the festival’s newly-claimed Wynnum Opera House just makes the irreverence of its content even more deliciously ironic.

Brainchild of Festival founder Tom Oliver, Brisbane’s own variety show is certainly a night of eclectic entertainment, featuring, on this occasion, Monty Pythonsque euphemistic word play in a phallic-themed duologue (Alan & Alan), performance poetry (Maddi Römcke) and two guys in a box (Andrew Cory and Leon Cain) on a very normal day of contemporary dystopian contemplation.

Hosted by Las Vegas regular Mario Queen of the Circus, the show features some of Brisbane’s finest cabaret performers from a range of creative backgrounds. World’s greatest Queen fan Mario is a beguiling emcee who sets the standard from the outset in share of his finely tuned 3-ball juggling and lip-sync routine to ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. He not only projects a rock show energy to match the number’s soundtrack, but his jokey through-show banter confirms that his expertise is in comedy as much as circus.

Melon the Human (Thomas Stewart) bookends this opening act nicely as he continues the circus theme through to the show’s conclusion with his awkward object manipulation and unique object juggling. While some acts continue on a little longer than is needed in that recent “Saturday Night Live” sort of way, the show’s all-sorts character means that it is not too long before another act is taking the stage.

Folk singer/songwriter Chanel Lucas’s musical numbers include some beautiful originals, showcasing her pure and gentle vocals in a way that makes us stop and recalibrate with the world. Her share of Amos Lee’s ‘Black River’ lamentation becomes an audience singalong, especially its verse about sweet whiskey taking cares away. It’s fitting considering that the show’s namesake is the god of all things wine, but it also symbolises the general merriment of its sold-out audience of festival goers, shared in their experience of a great night out.

While the spectacle of circus acts is impressive, this show is about more than this with up-to-date political references carefully included here and there adding an extra layer to its adults-only appeal. Combined, it all adds up to one very entertaining non-traditional experience, perfectly suited to this inaugural fringe festival.

Leviathan layers

Leviathan (Circa/QUT Dance Performance/Circa Zoo)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 3 – 12

Decreased capacities in QPAC theatres in compliance with COVID-19 physical distancing requirements means that the audience for Circa’s “Leviathan” is positioned in checkboard staggered seating format. It’s a motif seen reflected on stage too, on its ground level and above in a custom-designed aerial grid that facilitates its thematic explorations.

Before the action takes to the air, however, things begin enigmatically; as audience members take their seats, two performer feet poke out from beneath the curtain, moving occasionally, intriguingly. As the curtain to the Queensland premiere of the show (which had its world premiere at this year’s Perth Festival) rises, the character to which they belong is revealed at a costumed party scene….  a crowd of chairs amongst the kaleidoscopic colour of streamers and a masse of performers dressed in contemporary streetwear. As the dinosaur mask, helmet and crown of some come off, the party is quickly replaced by feats of balance beyond our grasp as performance stand on top of each other before falling, stunningly across the stage.

The ambitious work is also staggering in its scale, in part because of the size of its 36-person cast as Circa’s internationally-renowned ensemble joins with Circa Zoo’s ensemble of young performers and QUT dancers. And it is wonderful to see each member profiled in real time video projection as part of a series of individual straight-to-camera curtain calls interjecting a contorting performer on centre stage. It’s appropriate, too, in our current times, that the show, which is operating as Brisbane Festival’s biggest in-theatre event has, at its core, a theme of communal human spirit’s power to overcome adversity.

In its exploration of the ordinary, extraordinary mass of humanity, early scenes see ensemble members swarm and creak across the aerial grid as if in a giant game of The Floor is Lava.  Community is clearly at the core of director Yaron Lifschitz’s vision, derived from the work of 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote in his book “Leviathan” about the idea of a ‘social contract’ between leaders and communities. Accordingly, the work certainly both explores the tensions between individual freedom and responsibility, and celebrates the power of togetherness. We see extraordinary individual feats of determined strength morphing into instances of mass persistence, emphasised, at one point by on-loop crowd footage.

On stage, performers balance and tumble together with seamless transitions between each set. As well as the company’s trademark acrobatics, however, it features extraordinary physical feats of strength and agility, with standouts including a performer hanging by his hands from the edge of the grid suspended in the air as many others descend down him as if he is their rope and anchor in one.  

“Leviathan” takes its time, but not in an indulgent way, allowing the audience to sit in the work’s intense moments of contrast for full effect. While interconnectivity is a clear consideration from its outset, it is half way in to the show before the company’s trademark human pyramids impress, with performers towering atop each other in twos, then in balance of four and five, such is the remarkable strength and agility of its performers. Audience members are often mesmerised, as is so often the case at a Circa show. The awed silence of the Playhouse Theatre audience is so stunned at times that only the hum of the scaffolding’s machinery moving it into place can be heard.

The precision of the show’s choreographic choices is reflected especially in its checkerboard motif and in particular a scene that sees the ensemble gathering in the blink of an eye into their respective board squares. On a small scale too, we see individual freedom limited by location as grid squares of various sizes box performers, including, in one instance, becoming steadily more confined. The work’s innovation, however, is most obviously seen through its creative use of multi-media to present the action from different perspectives, including looking down upon performers from above as they clump together in attempt to stay within their confines.

“Leviathan” is a mighty monster of a production of the calibre fit for a festival in its dramatic aesthetics and stunning physicality. As all great art does, its meaning is layered in its offer of hopeful considerations of the concepts of freedom and responsibility in society, along with entertaining celebration of the richness of humanity and what we can achieve when we work together. As the ultimate balancing act between intellectual engagement and satisfying entertainment, it represents all the reasons why Circa stands strong as one Brisbane’s best artistic exports.

Photos c/o – Johannes Reinhardt

Peepshow play

Peepshow (Circa)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

January 14 – 25

Like Rachel Burke’s tinsel installation that decorates the foyer, there is an infectious sparkle to the Cremorne Theatre as audiences enter for Circa’s acclaimed “Peepshow”, courtesy of a shimmery backdrop and notable neon sign…. sparkle with a bit of burlesque. Performer clothes do come off a bit later with a little help from an audience member of sorts. (This is show with partial nudity, recommended for those aged 15 years and older; take your youngsters instead to “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” the company show which is playing by day in the same theatre).

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The hit “Peepshow” from Brisbane’s own Circa Contemporary Circus is dynamic from its very outset with a divine Act One soundtrack that features beguiling reworkings of some familiar tunes like Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’. Dreams appear broken, however, as we somersault into a seedier Act Two, in which the soundscape basses along as jerky and exaggerated dance moments morph into circus moves. The show is based around the concept of voyeurism and in Act Two, the audience often appears as a mirror in front of which performers pep and preen themselves, before sensibility is turned back to the gentler beginnings of Act One’s physical feats.

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This is a technically tight show with slick, sleight-of-hand type transitions but its success comes from more than just the thrill of its risky formations. The cheeky attitude of performers engages and creates a connection beyond just experience of its captivating acrobatic tricks. There is a lot of lifting, but other acts also, including stylish hoop routines, mesmerising aerial silk climbs, wraps, and drops and gravity-defying trapeze tricks.

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Director Yaron Lifschitz has given us a circus show for adults that turns the genre on its head… literally, as time and time again its seven performers (Ela Bartilomo, Jessica Connell, Luke Thomas, Maggie Fayne, Gerramy Marsden, Lachlan Sukroo, Billie Wilson-Coffey) astonish with an array of aerials, towers of balanced bodies and bending that beggars belief. While the show is often sexy in its sensibility, however, it doesn’t subscribe to the traditional idea of a peepshow; its women are strong, powerfully controlled and incredibly flexible as they anchor others atop their shoulders and balance performers on their torso in arch pose.

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The show’s triumph is also its tight ensemble work as performers use balance and counter-balance to perfection, sustaining intensity throughout, especially in their human pyramids and twists and turns while balanced atop each other. Indeed, they make complex contortions look effortless, but still show sparks of spontaneity that give a life to that work that is not always seen in circus shows.

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As with “Humans”, “Peepshow” is clearly a celebration of the beauty and strength of the human body through its stunning display of breathtaking moves. Its feats of extreme physicality take circus to another level, revealed through the collective audience reactions of awe and I was certainly thankful to be sedately seated a few rows back rather than being thrust into the front row exhilaration of having performers appear to be flying right at you, in catch and release routines made all the more astounding by their figure of eight rotations complete with leg changes. As thrilling as its execution is, however, there is also a playfulness too with juggling, human skipping ropes and a very clever Fosse-esque glove routine of intertwined hands and bodies. It’s the dramatic bending and flexing of the human body that is most memorable though, especially getting to see someone turn their body inside out to totally touch their own elbows!

 Photos – c/o Darren Thomas