Spine-tingling drama

EMMA PAGE
Last updated 05:00 06/11/2011
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JOHN WOUDSTRA

A TOSS-UP: Chelsea McGuffin does some serious air time.

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Some in the audience wince when a stiletto-shod woman walks over one of the male characters' naked torso.
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FAVOURITE: Beautiful Burnout. (See the NZ International Arts Festival preview below)

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Walking a tightrope in high heels? Tiptoeing across wine bottles? Aerial acrobatics? There's real danger in the circus show "Cantina", Emma Page discovers.

Chelsea McGuffin  has several favourite moves in the circus show Cantina but the one she really loves is the "toss the girl" routine.

It's an affectionate name for an act known officially as the "trio adagio" and involves some serious air time for the 35-year-old Australian mother of two. At one point, co-performers David Carberry and Daniel Catlow swing her in a full circle before flinging her into the air, her body twisting and barrel-rolling repeatedly before she lands gracefully in their arms. (If you can't imagine it, check out the clip on YouTube.) It's impressive, it's perilous and they've been honing it for five years.

Cantina's co-director and producer Scott Maidment says it is this mix of elite performance skills and the tension of a live show that has endeared the work to audiences. Premiering in Australia last year, it enjoyed sold-out seasons and is currently on tour with invitations to play at art festivals in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Colombia and New Zealand – where it will show as part of the International Arts Festival in Wellington early next year.

Cantina combines traditional circus skills with dance, acrobatics and music to create a piece of contemporary physical theatre. Set in a 1930s speakeasy, and inspired by adult vaudeville, the show creates a beguiling atmosphere that's billed as a "spectacularly dark and dangerous world of faded glamour, passion and violence". The physical feats of the six Australia-based performers unfold to a soundscape of antiquated musical instruments, including gramophones, music boxes and a pianola. It looks and sounds sumptuous.

"It's romantic and it's funny," says Maidment. "But it's also very dangerous, and I think that's a great cocktail of ingredients." And yes, there is real danger. Cantina was created by Strut & Fret, an Australian production house that bills itself as having a unique "catch-your-breath" style. When asked for examples of this in the show, Maidment describes how it opens with performers walking on a tightrope above the audience's heads. (Just to make things tricky, McGuffin does this in high heels.) In another scene Mozes, who goes only by his first name, does a rope routine in which he drops 8m – without a safety net. Some in the audience wince when a stiletto-shod woman walks over one of the male characters' naked torsos.

A review in The Australian described such moves as "spectacular acts of physical strength, endurance and anatomical unlikelihood" and said the "performers take serious risks and amazing feats occur".

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But while there are plenty of "great tricks", Maidment says the action is also thematically structured, exploring the blurred line between passion and violence, and this helps create an emotional connection for the audience.

"Cantina takes its audience into a whole other world and you really forget about your daily troubles for that hour," says Maidment.

"You're swept up in the emotions and the journey of the performers themselves and I think that sort of escapism is what people love about the show." In the intimate setting of a waterfront spiegeltent (the Wellington one will have a capacity of around 350), as the headline act of the TelstraClear Festival Club, it's easy to imagine how the element of danger and immediacy of a live performance grabs the audience, pulling them into the show and providing a different experience from the special effects of digital entertainment. "I guess one of the biggest things is that it's real. It's live on stage in front of their eyes. It's not a video game or a movie," says Maidment. "You read about it, and you might see clips, but really it's about experiencing it live. In the blurb it talks about the passion and the violence, but a lot of people talk about the romance and the tenderness of it. Audiences really do get closely involved in the whole process."

For McGuffin, this audience engagement is evident in the trick that she finds most challenging. It's a new move developed last year especially for Cantina and involves walking on tiptoes across the tops of five wine bottles sitting on a pianola. In an email sent from Belgium, where the Cantina crew are performing, she describes how difficult the stunt is and says she likes it precisely because "I am never sure it is going to work".

"The focus needed is really pinpoint and if I let other thoughts come into my head I cannot achieve the skill. I like this as the tension is so strong and shared with audience – we are all hoping and focusing on making this one thing possible." Circus shows pull large crowds at festivals. In recent years there have been increasing numbers of works that can be loosely grouped under the banner of new circus – a term taken from the French expression "nouveau cirque" and sometimes called contemporary circus in English. Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well known example is Cirque du Soleil, the Canada-headquartered company that pumps out shows full of spectacular costumes and circus-based tricks. But there are many other cabaret, burlesque and physical theatre-type productions that use circus skills in a new context.

Maidment says Cantina is unique but he does use the term new circus – if only to let people know that they are not coming to see a play or an opera. "For a lot of people the circus means clowns and lions and tigers, and so when they see something like Cantina, for those people they say `How can that be a circus?' I guess for me, new circus is using the vocabulary of traditional circus skill – which might be juggling or tightroping or acrobatics – but creating a new form of performance. Instead of using a language or a script, you're using a physical language to tell a story or create a world."

Festival artistic director Lissa Twomey says she's pleased to catch a show in such high demand and before they perform at a major festival in South America. She says a "high-octane" show like Cantina is perfect for the Festival Club, and the festival "as it oozes exuberance and energy".

CIRQUE NOUVEAU

It's the circus – but without the lions and tigers. New circus, nu-circus or contemporary circus is a loose genre that pulls together cabaret-burlesque inspired shows that often utilise traditional or revamped circus tricks and acrobatic feats.

Cirque du Soleil The highly polished juggernaut of a production started in 1984 in Canada, and has become the most recognised new circus show, reportedly to be seen by 15 million people worldwide this year. Featuring lavish costumes and polished acts pulled together by an overarching theme or story.

La Soiree (previously La Clique) Performing as La Clique in the 2007 Auckland Festival, this cabaret-burlesque show comprised of individual acts – including a 1m-tall belly dancer and a gymnastic bathtub routine by David O'Mer – played to rave reviews. Now called La Soiree, the show has been touring internationally with a changing collective of different artists.

Cabaret Askew Locally produced with New Zealand-based talent, this show was produced by Singe Performance, a company established by choreographer Kali-Zahira and designed to showcase some of the country's more diverse performers, including circus artists. Cabaret Askew performs in Auckland in November.

JUST THE TICKET

More than 300 performances from around the world will light up the capital during the NZ International Arts Festival in February, and a new festival hub will take shape on the Wellington waterfront.
The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will kick off festivities with a double bill of Stravinsky masterworks Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, conducted by Joana Carneiro, with acclaimed opera soloists and the NBR New Zealand Opera's Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus.

There will be nine world premieres. New to Wellington are US indie act Bon Iver and a co-production with the Sydney Festival featuring The Barefoot Divas. North African band Tinariwen are bringing their "desert blues" sound and Britain's The Sixteen perform their period-instrument orchestra in New Zealand for the first time.

The old iambic pentameter will be brought out for acclaimed all-male British Shakespeare company Propeller, performing Henry V and The Winter's Tale, and there will be a te reo version of Troilus and Cressida, previewing before its season at London's Globe Theatre. UK company Kneehigh will mix up the theatre offerings with their dark performance of fairy tale The Wild Bride. Festival favourites the National Theatre of Scotland will return this year with their show Beautiful Burnout.

Cantina is a racy late-night circus performance, while younger eyes can enjoy the more family-friendly show, White.

Fans of the accordion can listen to the tones of Finnish player, Kimmo Pohjonen.

Choreographer Hofesh Shechter will bring Political Mother to the stage, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a favourite from last year's festival, performs TeZukA, inspired by Japanese manga artist Osamu Tezuka. Lemi Ponifasio, a New Zealand artist, and his company, Mau, perform the new Birds with Skymirrors dance work, while Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo performs Onqoto.

Book fans will take delight in the Writers and Readers Week, a complete programme of which will be released on January 26, but visiting authors include Germaine Greer, Tim Flannery, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning US author Thomas Friedman, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo and our own Margaret Mahy.

The City Gallery is holding an exhibition of contemporary New Zealand sculpture, the 2012 Adam Portraiture Award is at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery and Mexican artist Teresa Margolles is on show at the Dowse Art Museum.

The 2012 New Zealand Arts Festival runs from February 24 to March 18 at various locations throughout Wellington. For full details, visit www.festival.co.nz

Cantina opens on March 2 in the TelstraClear Festival Club.

- Sunday Star Times

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