Circus, the new frontier
With their new cabinet of wonders, the Australian company Circa beggar belief and transcend language
They call the scene “Crack”. Given the back-breaking risks that the Australian contemporary circus company have put on display, this sounds painful.
The extraordinary acrobats of the Brisbane-based Circa build human towers, three or four people high, which topple and collapse. They breezily cup their hands as someone dashes towards them and the runner springs into a triple backwards somersault. Two powerfully built men swing the body of a woman like a hammock before sending her spinning horizontally through the air towards the shoulders of a petite woman who seems unprepared. (She isn’t.) Are there even names for such breathtaking feats?
The McEwan Hall in Edinburgh’s Bristo Square is a beautiful 19th-century rotunda belonging to Edinburgh University, with the awesome space and reverberations of a place of worship. During the Edinburgh Fringe, of course, it plays host to a temporary generic black-box space festooned with promotional emblems in the shape of a purple cartoon cow. Still, before another sold-out performance begins, it is an atmospheric place to see the Circa ensemble do their warm up. Silent and serious as monks (albeit with considerably less clothing), performers would then leap into a skill – a headstand, say, or a backwards roll from a standing position – and hit the floor, feet first, with a resounding thump.
To see them at rest, with bodies that recall the chiselled perfection of Greek statues more than Calvin Klein models, you might determine to get back to the gym. To see them in action, breaking the laws of physics and blowing your mind, you might roll your eyes and buy a tub of ice cream.
What’s in a name?
“Crack,” the tour manager smiles with slight apology, is just the name that suits the style of one scene and, besides, the music used – a key component to any Circa show – is a shuffling conspiracy of electronic and jazz patterns by Barry Adamson is called Crackula Has Risen From the Grave. Another scene, known to the troupe as Toss The Girl, needs less explanation, but a lot of insurance.
Otherwise, the names of individual skills can be universally understood (“Two-high” for someone standing on another person’s shoulders, “three-high” when you add another storey) or are utterly idiosyncratic. A death-defying feat might be named after the colour of a shirt it’s creator was wearing on the day; another might be christened The Eiffel Tower if someone made an architectural association.
Circa grew out of a Brisbane company called Rock N Roll Circus, when the theatre director Yaron Lifschitz tried to introduce character and story to its dazzle and display, then abandoned the idea.
“Fundamentally, theatre is based on tension and conflict,” Lifschitz told me a few years ago. “In circus, people never disagree with each other – otherwise you’d drop your partner. It’s better that we’re all listening to each other and working out where the genuine tension really is.”