It all happens in the ellipses. Robert Reid goes to see Circuz Oz.
I’m currently in a slow conversation over Facebook with David Finnigan about his Lifted Brow article, You’re Going to Get Away With It. Finnigan thinks humanity might get away with having caused climate change because there won’t be a lot of fossil records conclusively pointing to us as the culprits. I’m arguing that Mount Rushmore will be a dead giveaway. Though, I guess, there’s erosion.
The conversation echoes in my head when I watch Circus Oz’s new show, Precarious.
We are late, later than we’d like anyway, and find our seats only a few minutes before show time. I hadn’t realised it was opening night – I don’t love opening nights – and the big top is filled with faces I recognise. Circus Oz is that kind of company: now in its fortieth year, it’s part of the fabric of the Australian performance community. From a ragtag bunch of actors who wanted to develop their circus skills decades ago at The Pram, Circus Oz has grown into one of the most established and important arts institutions in the country.
The bendy, low-raked seating under the Big Top is a bit cramped. There is general funning amongst the crowd by the performers pre-show: they climb through us, make us stand and sit as a row. The gentleman in front of us doesn’t seem to understand that this is part of the fun, scowling and refusing to stand. That’s the spirit, buddy.
Circus is an odd beast to reflect upon. The display of skill and strength and daring, in its way, redacts much of the procedural detail of the world being created. The performers are invariably astounding, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Each of them is possessed of a set of skills, strength and coordination beyond most of us –far, far beyond anything I might be capable of. They are superheroes who walk among us, and they unfailingly demonstrate these distinctions for our entertainment.
What happens in that ellipsis is the precarious bit.
Story colonises the margins of the performance, in interstitial moments, its themes and bookends. Displays of skill are one thing, but for circus to speak, it all has to be harnessed towards meaning. Circus Oz have been masters of this for decades. Although they’ve been sometimes unfocused, Circus Oz has never lost the sense of circus as a place to connect with an audience and address contemporary politics.
Under the new artistic directorship of Rob Tannion, the engagement with that politics feels lighter and more sophisticated. Precarious, co-directed by Tannion and Kate Fryer, crafts a world of bureaucracy and nostalgia at the same time as gently nudging us towards caring more for our environment. Without explicitly asking, it subtly suggests we reflect on the precarious nature of our own environment, its fragility and vulnerability to human failing.
The design evokes Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Michael Radford’s 1984: flannel pants and woollen vests of the 1950s business world adorn Precarious’ “Ministry of Nature”. There’s no evil intent, no corporate greed or corrupt governments in this world, but even in the hands of this bumbling, lovable human bureaucracy, it can’t be trusted. The company’s only seed, perhaps the world’s last, is almost lost through clownish misadventure.
Tannion and Fryer turn the skills of the company towards the retrieval of that seed, illustrating the bureaucratic world as they pursue it. The Cyr Wheel (Jake Silvestro) flips and rolls heavily around the stage with Silvestro inside, riding it, climbing it, spanning it like the Vitruvian man or Lewis Hine’s powerhouse mechanic. The floor is lifted at one point and an acrobat (Jon Bonaventura), lit from below, emerges from under the stage. I think I hear water or machinery. I wonder about the world beneath, the rising water, the flooded seed bank in Oslo, as Bonaventura bends and folds himself into distorted Piscean shapes. Evolution is what can survive in the new world.
At the top of the set sits the Seed Board, counting how many seeds there are…somewhere. It remains resolutely stuck at zero throughout the show. The clowns futilely attempt to prop it up with a golf clubs. Is it reading too much into this that golf, having become a symbol of wealthy indifference, is deliberately equated here with the facile attempt to pretend the seeds aren’t at zero? Confusingly, once the seed has been found, the board is re-set to 100,000 seeds…So, did we lose all the seeds in that one big seed, or are we now pretending that finding one seed fixes everything? The danger of using circus to speak lyrically around politics is that you risk blurring the edges of what you’re saying.
The band plays jazzy, dissonant, cartoony music under the action. Bobby Hammacks Power House and Jack Malmsten’s Satan Takes a Holiday echo in Sophia Exiner and Jeremy Hopkins’ original compositions. Images of Charlie Chaplin and Buggs Bunny being crushed by the gears of industry flicker in my head as I listen. Moments of percussive melody remind me of Shoji Yamashiro.
At the very beginning Tara Silcock edges out from the top of the set on a plank suspended over nothing. At the same time Lachlan Sukroo constructs a tower of boxes and climbs to the top, building beneath himself as his goes. They both wobble worryingly, but somehow they remain balanced, until it is time to deconstruct their aeries once more from beneath. This image, of being ready to topple from an unstable creation of our own, runs through Precarious, recurring in the Block Handstands (Bonaventura and Dylan Singh) and the solo and group balance work (Emily Gare, Sukroo, Singh, Bonaventura and Tania Cervantes).
In our Facebook conversation, Finnigan tells me that the Pink Chicken Project (no link, I’ll let you google that one) are trying to get chickens genetically dyed pink to act as a marker of the Anthropocene epoch in the fossil record. I think it’ll just make people stop eating chicken – it looks raw.
We perch upon a very wobbly tower, us chicken-dying humans. At the end of each act in Precarious they managed to get back to the ground without incident. I worry we’re not going to have the same experience climbing down from our particular pile of boxes.
Precarious, co-directed by Rob Tannion and Kate Fryer. Design by Michael Baxter, costume design by Laurel Frank, lighting design by Maddy Seach, musical direction by Jeremy Hopkins. Ensemble and collaborating artists: Dylan Singh, Emily Gare, Jake Silvestro, Jeremy Hopkins (musician), Jon Bonaventura, Lachlan Sukroo, Sophia Exiner (musician), Tania Cervantes Chamorra and Tara Silcock. Circuz Oz, Big Top at the Botanical Gardens, until July 15. Bookings https://www.circusoz.com/shows-and-tickets/book-tickets/list/10015-precarious/134/precarious.html
Circus Oz accepts Companion Cards and offers access to wheelchair patrons at all Big Top performances. To book a wheelchair seat please contact the Ticketek Hotline on 1300 665 915. Wheelchair seats are located in the front row and sold at A-reserve prices.
If you have any queries about accessing the Royal Botanic Gardens please contact their visitor experience staff prior to attendance by calling (03) 5990 2200 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audio description performance: 6.30pm Saturday July 7. Auslan performance: 1.30pm on Saturday July 14.