Circus, the new frontier
With their new cabinet of wonders, the Australian company Circa beggar belief and transcend language
It seems strange, though, that other ensembles under Circa’s umbrella (they have seven shows in repertory, touring the world) don’t even agree on the terms of performance among themselves: like Adam in Eden, everyone could create their own terms. Clear communication, though, seems essential when you’re six metres high on a Chinese pole, standing as perpendicular as a flag in a strong breeze and reaching out to catch your partner with your extended toes. Can it transcend language?
Watching such a sequence, between Lewis West and Todd Kirby, I find my own words shrinking in my notebook from a wan attempt to interpret the scene – wearing uniforms, the men might be soldiers, weary brothers in arms, executing manoeuvres of support and assistance, but it isn’t too much of a stretch to think they could be lovers – and there’s a scrawl of exclamation marks as I involuntarily gasp or whistle through my teeth.
There are no words.
“I love that,” says Lewis West (he pronounces it Louie). “You can feel when an audience is holding its breath with you. One of my favourite parts of performing is the involuntary noises. The gasps and laughs. Because people can clap if they want to, but when you hear someone go ‘Whuuughhh!’ or ‘Oh my Gooood’, you know they’re right there with you. One of the reasons we don’t have quite strict choreography is so we can react to that.”
West, who has been with the company for five years, has a compact frame, a delicate face and blond curls like a Renaissance cherub. In performance, though, he can be as tender, suffering or as brutal as the scene requires. For one of the company’s signature sequences, from the shows The Space Between and Circa, a woman in perilously high stilettos engages in a choreographed dance of trust and suspicion with her male partner – all aggressive throws and caring catches – which finally resolves in the man in a crab position and the woman walking slowly up his chest. West has not performed the scene in two years and the scars, he says, are only now beginning to heal.
West began as a gymnast, but grew tired of the solemnity and tedium of training, and moved to youth circus, and then to the National Institute of Circus Artists, where he studied for three years. “It’s so ridiculous,” he says, laughing and unrolling an invisible parchment. “Look, I’m qualified.”
There he learned about anatomy, physiology, injury prevention and recuperation, and business management. “But, like anything you do in the performing arts, you need to just go out and do it.”
Australia has become the world leader in contemporary circus, with companies such as Circa, Casus, La Cirque and AfterDark touring frequently, exhibiting inordinate levels of skill, humour, sex appeal and adventure. Chinese troupes and Russian troupes may be famed for precision and virtuosity, but they don’t travel with as much ease or demonstrate as much character. Remote enough to develop independently, but connected enough to take influences and run with them, companies in Australia may have been ideally situated to develop the art of circus.