13-22 April 2018, Anderson Park, Napier By Jess Soutar Barron
At the first sight of the twin peaks of the big top from across the park, an electric zing passes around my small flock of charges… the circus is in town! What better fuel to toss on the fire of such excitement than clouds of candy floss – spun sugar that melts into joyful childhood memory. Sticky faced and wide-eyed we ascend the tiers, ready to be entertained.
As the crowd files in, we are inducted in ‘How to Audience 101’ by Sylvian, a smiling Estonian-Frenchman whose expertise with the diablo is only equalled by his charm. It’s telling, and savvy, that an amassed group of Kiwis needs to be reminded that these are live performers and that the appropriate response to feats of amazing skill and daring is wild applause and enthusiastic vocalisation, not folded arms and a ‘yes, and’ facial expression. The enculturation of the movie theatre thus discarded, the show begins.
Ringmaster and co-owner, Damian Gordon, holds court with something of an air of menace, channelling aspects of Papa Lazarou. It’s a schtick that he carries through his alter-egos, Pod – a classic clown in painted pants – and hat juggling lothario Gino Stumbelli. One might speculate as to whether some aspects of his bit (surprising an audience member with a kiss on the lips, for example) may need to be reconsidered in the light of #metoo – he certainly wouldn’t be the first. But we all know that clowns are creepy as hell, and the circus has always thrived on a touch of the macabre.
The hour and a half that follows is filled with ooh’s and aah’s. Aerialists cavort and contort with grace and beauty on silks, cords, trapeze and a truly memorable sister act on aerial hoop. There are moments of genuine, eye-covering terror – Icelandic strongman, Nonni’s effortless handstands atop a pair of unstable stacks of blocks – Lucky’s inverted pole slide at speed, stopping inches before his head meets the floor – Matthias’ juggling atop a teetering tower of roller bollers. There is extreme silliness – Sylvian wraps his arms around the back of his head with a sickening shoulder pop, to pull his mouth into an exaggerated grimace. There is the bizarre – co-founder, Irene Goed, plays the musical saw with a twisted grin and a glint in her eye before performing an act of antipodism with a mesmerising sparkling cylinder. The Tossing Tangalinis – an ensemble piece in which elfin girls are swung and thrown through the air, culminating in a pyramid atop the shoulders of the strongman – is the people’s favourite, and would have made for a stunning finish. Its placement, midway through the first act, did a disservice, both to the performance and those that followed.
Despite the prevalence of international performers (a consequence of Christchurch’s post- earthquake circus school closure), there is a distinctive can-do Kiwi feel, earning the name Circus Aotearoa. It’s a skeleton crew with no divas – aerialists sell tickets and serve candy floss, the strong man hammers in the tent pegs, an acrobat shows us to our seats, and deftly extends a hand when I almost topple from the tiers. There is none of the polish of Weber or Zirka here – costumes look hand-stitched, elaborate face paint is eschewed in favour of just a smattering of sparkle, inside the tent there is grass underfoot, and there is an air of shabbiness to the tent, itself a hangover from the legendary Whirling Bros from whose ashes (minus the elephant) this circus arose. But herein lies its particular appeal. A world that is increasingly airbrushed and curated creates a hunger for authenticity, and in this world, Circus Aotearoa has furnished a feast.
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