Today more and more circus shows eschew the big top tradition of flashy costumes, clowns and animals – and Australian company Circa, who perform in the NZ Festival, are part of the vanguard.
The show is simply performed by seven highly skilled acrobats. Circa's show, Beyond, in the festival will be the company's New Zealand debut after performing in 24 countries in eight years. The Wellington season in March comes after a sell-out season in London and an eight-month residency in Berlin.
Britain's The Guardian gave Beyond a four-star review. "There is something so dreamy and hallucinogenic about this latest show from Australian circus sorcerers Circa that you keep expecting to hear a blast of Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane," wrote reviewer Lyn Gardner.
Circa's founder and artistic director, Yaron Lifschitz, has another way of describing Beyond: "Bubbles in a beautiful glass of champagne," he says. The production allows the performers to go on a journey into the unknown, to "discover themselves" beyond the simple "human or animal?; mad or sane?"
For Lifschitz, it's very different from the company's other shows, including Wunderkammer. Beyond is more theatrical, he says. "The thing that makes Beyond really different is the strength of its warm, tender, beautiful generous show."
It is described as more of a theatrical show than previous Circa performances such as Wunderkammer, first staged in 2010.
The performance itself is incredibly raw and stripped back. The intensity of the acrobatic moves can be seen on the faces of the performers, with sweat shining on their faces. The audience can really see the performers' concentration and the extreme focus on their faces, says Lifschitz.
But the absence of animals has also been taken into account in a special way. Lifschitz says Beyond finds the inner "animalness" and "the beast within" a human being.
At one stage of the show, performers don bear suits or fluffy bunny heads to perform skilful acrobatics accompanied by Chinese poles and trapeze. Lifschitz argues that the point of this is not for the performers to "pretend to be animals". It's to "create this flavour, this odd beautiful world where the lines between human and animal, day and night all get a little bit blurred".
So what inspired this creative director to produce such a show?
"[I was] interested in the idea of the creature and what our relationship is to the animal inside us and how that affects our lives."
He also wanted to make a show that was a celebration. Some of the ideas came from a "variety of different questions I ask and I try and put together". But one influence he does single out is the 2012 coming-of-age American film Moonrise Kingdom, directed by Wes Anderson, because it was "playful and gentle", he says.
Another important trademark for Circa is that it ignores gender stereotypes. This is 21st century acrobatics where the female performers often support muscular males on their shoulders, instead of visa versa.
Lifschitz graduated from University of New South Wales and also University of Queensland and National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA), where he became the youngest ever director to be accepted into the prestigious graduate course. One of NIDA's graduates is Hollywood star Cate Blanchett, who is a friend and fan of Lifschitz's Circa. "Yaron has elevated the way Australia perceives circus, both nationally and internationally," she has said.
However, it was not an easy road to success. Lifschitz was raised in a Jewish home in Australia and his parents wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor in his younger years to earn a stable income. Instead he pursued a career in directing. He founded the Rock 'n' Roll Circus Ensemble. The Brisbane-based company struggled in its early years. Lifschitz says its concept of circus was too unfamiliar for many people. He decided to rebrand his company to modernise the concept of a contemporary circus show. The name was subsequently changed to Circa.
Today critics are even comparing his ensemble to the widely known Cirque du Soleil. In 2013, Circa performed more than 400 shows, including in Paris, New York, Montreal, Madrid, London, Edinburgh and Berlin.
But for Beyond coming to Wellington, Lifschitz's description borders on the poetic. "[The show is an] emotional palette that is quite beautiful. It's melancholy. It's very rich and very warm and the audience have a direct experience with that 'cause there are people that perform with great honesty and great vulnerability and also taking risks and doing amazing things."
Beyond is performed at Wellington's Opera House, March 8-16, as part of the New Zealand Festival.
- © Fairfax NZ News