For many days I wondered as I stared out my office window what was being built on the patch of grass along the Yarra River. When my questions were finally answered by a co-worker that the river bank was the site of the annual Circus Oz performances, I knew that I needed to get tickets. I had let the shows at the Spiegeltent and the Comedy Festival get away from me and I was not about to let it happen with Circus Oz.
Circus Oz is a 35 year old production that is based in Melbourne, but travels the world. It is one of the first modern circuses, i.e no use of animals, and predates Cirque du Soleil by six years. The troupe features twelve performers who create a cheeky and chaotic show. Unlike Cirque du Soleil’s grace and elegance, the atmosphere is more gritty and reminiscent of the old fashioned big top with a focus on the rigor of the tricks, intentional mistakes and hawkers of fried donuts, popcorn and chocolate ice cream cones almost becoming part of the show.
This year’s performance was inspired by the iconic photograph of New York construction workers eating lunch atop the girder of a skyscraper. For me, one of the highlights was a burly Mason West, complete with handlebar mustache, doing a seductive pole dance of sorts. Fantaysia Fitness, with her inline skating aerobics and pre-natal pole dancing pilates classes, provided spot-on comedy. I will be thinking about becoming “totes co”, i.e. totally coordinated, for weeks.
I have been to wonderful circuses in Russia, a place where the circus is viewed as an art form on par with ballet. But those circuses were located in dedicated buildings. There is something to be said for performing in a tent. Sitting warm and cocooned under the taut canvas while hearing the Melbourne rain drumming above on a winters night captured the big top feel in a way that a building never could.
If I had to offer a critique of the show it would be that though the performance had strong characters, it lacked narrative. Rather than develop a story, the show revolved around a theme. Circus Oz is known for its support of various social justice projects. It makes an effort to involve itself in the indigenous communities and ended the show on the night I attended with a collection for asylum seekers. According to the program, From the Ground Up—Cranked Up‘s message is that “as Australia is building a future for itself from the ground up, let’s recognise whose ground it is anyway and while we are at it, let’s fix that rusty old Australian Constitution”. (There is a push today to recognize indigenous people in Australia’s constitution, particularly given that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Yirrkala bark petitions—the first documents that were prepared by indigenous Australians and recognized by the Australian parliament.) The problem was that although the show prominently featured two aboriginal performers, the message was left until the close of the show.
This quibble aside, if you are in Melbourne from mid-June to mid-July, I recommend picking up tickets, which run as low as A$30, to this uniquely Australian circus and heading to the Birrarung Marr.