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.

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

Mozart mayhem

Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus (Circa)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

January 7 – 18

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Circa’s family-friendly show, “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” is a stunning display of daredevil acrobatic artistry set to the dramatic tunes of Mozart, making it a wonderful way to introduce children to the composer’s music come to life.

The family show with an energetic circus twist starts slowly with a lonely birthday girl (Kathryn O’Keeffe) who conjures Mozart (real-life husband Paul O’Keeffe), and a live accordionist (Gareth Chin) from her refrigerator by putting on her favourite of the classical composer’s records. Despite his period costume attire and wig, Wolfgang is soon stretching, lifting and tumbling about with the girl, before departing from the fantasy. A quick record flip and he is back for us to hear and see more (much more) of him as he sets to entertain with ‘don’t try this at home’ bicycle tricks and farcical antics. There is then juggling, creative play with the show’s spotlight and a very funny slow-motion fight scene; it’s mayhem that the youngest children and adults alike all love.

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As the cheeky and eccentric musical prodigy, Paul O’Keeffe provides most of the laughs through his mischievous animated expressions, silly but genuinely-funny slapstick antics and over-the-top man-child tantrum reactions to prop malfunctions. As expected in a Circa show, both of the performers are physically strong artists, as evidenced by their balancing and hand-to-hand routines and it is especially impressive to see Katherine O’Keeffe serve as the anchor in so many of these. Together they present some truly impressive stunts tumbling and jumping over and atop each other and do well to hold the attention of an audience of children.

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While the on-stage comedy routine antics and snippets of audience involvement provide playful laughs and a feeling of fun, it is the show’s reinvention of Mozart’s magical music that sets it apart from others. Movement is perfectly timed to its accompanying, bringing it to such life as to inspire little ones to hum Mozart’s ‘Little Night Music’, as they are heading off afterwards.

Of course you don’t need to be a youngster, to appreciate the refreshing concept behind this whimsical journey, or the skills of its physical theatre performers. And this is what makes “Wolfgang’s Magical Musical Circus” another of the renowned international circus company’s special successes.

En Massse excellence

En Masse (Circa)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 19 – 22

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The adverb en masse means all together. It is therefore, not only an artsty, but an appropriate title for the latest work of world renowned Brisbane-based contemporary circus company Circa. The new work, in world premiere at the Brisbane Festival features not only Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz’s trademark masse of humans intertwined throughout part of the piece, but a collective of artforms curated together to become its advertised wild, tender and savage ride. The contradictory aspects come courtesy of its ambitious presentation of two visions of humanity at its extremes through circus settings of Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey” and selections from his collection “Swan Song”, as well as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. And the contrast between the works is clearly evident, making “En Masse” a show that is well a truly one of two halves.

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Act One sees Schubert’s exquisitely dark songs of loss and love shared by leading English tenor Rob Murray as acrobats from Circa’s legendary ensemble bend between anarchic energy and exquisite loss. There is a sense of disconnection as performers lie strewn across the front of the stage, contorting as they are drawn back behind the barely-raised scrim. When it is lifted, the atmosphere is still bleak as we see initially 10 and then just one performer in a translucent plastic cube, trying to the shape and control its claustrophobic containment of him, before realisation of the futility of resistance.

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The grim, apocalyptic feel is evident in every aspect of the stylishly minimal design aesthetic, including Murray’s dishevelled appearance as a vagrant watching the action. But it is also all about contrasts as violently aggressive, almost epileptic, angular movements follow frenetically from the fluidity of lyric and tender moments and the operatic calm. And the ebb and flow of the solo, duo, trio and group pieces continues in accent of the music, allowing it to shape key moments but also play more of a support role where necessary.

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Things brighten in Act Two which sees the stage erupt with the energy of Stravinsky’s controversial ballet “Rite of Spring”, which is played live in a piano duet by acclaimed pianists Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Michael Kieran Harvey while acrobats are pitted in a life-and-death struggle between group and victim. The first-ever circus setting of the orchestral work makes an impact from its opening moments, as the focus is moved from the intimate to the more expansive as the illusion of the cube containment is amplified to encasement of the large Playhouse stage. Within it, performers still pyramid atop each other, jump into and over each other and are dragged about, but there is a definitely sense of divergence as they explore the familiar, but still astounding work’s depiction of a wild pagan spring ritual, rising and falling impressively in canon and dominoing in unison.

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As with any Circa show, it is easy to appreciate the company’s high regard. Not only are all members of the group of 10 hugely talented acrobats remarkably skilful in every aspect of their delivery of the physically demanding show, but their intense and sustained focus throughout is astounding, and also intriguing. And it is impressive to see the interchangeable strength of male and female performers in catching and carrying each other around.

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Clearly Brisbane audiences love joining to rejoice in the successes of our own ‘little circus company that could’ and its domination of the artform; I do not think I have ever seen the Playhouse foyer so abuzz with busyness before a show and forget trying to get hands upon a highly-sought-after program. It seems the audience know that even if you have seen Circa before and so you think you might know what to anticipate, their shows will not only be gripping but also still amaze with something new and exciting. In this instance it may be when a performer walks across the front of the stage with bent-over feet to become their own pointe shoe, or when a tower of three men topple forward into a roll, or maybe when a woman does a one-handed handstand while balanced on top of a two-man tower. (Given the number of audible reactions from the audience during the show, the list could definitely go on.)

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This is what Circa does and it is what they with excellence. While giving physical language to these classical scores is an interesting exploration, the performance’s theatrical aspects and addition of a narrative of sorts both adds to and, at times, detracts for this core business, but this see-saw reaction is probably appropriate given the contrasts so integral to the essence of the work. Even to those unfamiliar with the Schubert and Stravinsky and especially to those unacquainted with Circa, this is a show or rich reward that, like so many others, we are lucky to have as part of this year’s festival.

Circa experience

Aura (Circa)

Flowstate

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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.