The Australian National Circus Festival
Is there a Festival like it anywhere? If so, I want to go! It's always in hard-to-get-to places - a back-block in the Tasmanian forest, small country towns, islands.
Yet it always fills up. Circus enthusiasts trek across the country to these obscure locations, like pilgrims of old, processing towards a sacred site.
When they get there, the accommodation is spartan, and the work hard. In Tassie, the latrines are dug by a volunteer squad (of performers) the week before. But as some compensation for the rough living, aerial rigs and tightropes are set up in the bush, and to relax after a hard-day's acro, there's an on-site water hole, home to a family of duck-billed platypus.
In 2001 there were two Festivals, at the extreme east and west of Australia, Mullumbimby, New South Wales, and Rottnest Island, off Perth.
Let me present to you some cameos which may make you determined to visit the next Australian National Circus Festival. (Follow the Kaskade gig-guide for details).
In Mullumbimby, the 5-day training programme and 3-day public shows took place at the local showground, with our camp-site on one side, and the barn HQ of the host, Spaghetti (Youth) Circus on the other. Horses watched over the fence, and locals cycled passed continuously to see what was going on. Leone Mills is the trainer of Spaghetti. She is local, fearsomely fit, and totally committed to her 9 year old circus company. After the 'Flying Fruit Flies' - with their Chinese and Russian trainers - the Spaghetti kids are undoubtedly the premier youth circus in Australia, specialising in tumbling, aerial and contortion. Leone conducts group stretching every morning. Scary stuff for an aging ex-juggler!
Our (very hands-on) Festival and our (more cerebral) 'Head to Head' Conference rarely coincide, but many of the same faces are seen at both. Pandora Karavan takes portrait photographs of the 'characters'. Her exhibitions are a self-indulgence for us, but also a continuing chronicle of the looks and personality of the Festival over the years.
KT was the artist-on-site at Rottnest this in September, and it was lovely to see our eminent acrobat/juggler/clown Sue Broadway sit still for an hour in her funny hat and little nose, then later her beautiful 20x20 cm oil on canvas portrait hanging in the instant gallery on the wall of the Lunar Circus bus.
'Popeyed' is a duo of spunky acro-balance guys from Brisbane with bodies like muscle charts, Rudi and Mark. Whatever you've seen from various cloned Soleil twins, these blokes can do. Their lifts and balances are awesome and flawless. Then, when Mark is upside down above -Rudi, he drops head-first to the ground! It's a joke, and totally unexpected in the context.
Willie Ramsay, from Scotland, who was trainer of the Millennium Dome aerial project, and coached bungee for 'Tomb Raider', was at the Rottnest Festival. He made the observation that every single act he'd seen was funny! It seems that Australia is at the polar opposite to France on the 'taking-yourself-seriously' scale.
In Mullumbimby, the resident Big Top was the 'Sunrise Circus', part owned by Gary Brophy, from the traditional Australian 'Brophy Bros Circus'. Gary and I have met occasionally over a dozen years, and I guess when he spotted me on the first day, I was the first familiar (and non-pierced) face. So we chatted, and agreed that this was 'a weird mob', but I suggested he give them a few days.
By the end of the week wonderful things had happened. His little girl was fully a part of the camp kids gang, hardly recognisable when she put on her sequins for her stunning hoop and contortion act in her Dad's ring. Gary kept pointing out to me the kids 'with potential', and on Thursday he joined in Wendy's poi-twirling workshop, and realized he already had this skill, and muttered something about 'a rusty old chain set under the seating units in truck 2'. Then in the Fire Show, a group spectacle which has become a tradition for the Festival's public nights, there was Gary Brophy, in his jeans and cowboy boots, bare-chest glowing, twirling and hurling a massive fire chain-and-bowls 'meteor'.
Aerial training, with web, corde lisse, tissu and bungee, as well as static, swinging and flying trapeze are available, as well as all the tumbling and acro-balance you'd ever want. I am astounded by the generosity of the artist/teachers. All seem to have the time to talk and pass on all their tricks and techniques.
Rumplestilskin, the mad Australian jester, generally restricts himself to 3-4 hours shows of acrobatic anarchy in which he is the victim of his own spring shoes, blazing unicycle, flying ukeles and venerable poem tome.
Joel Salom - is he the world's best MC? - comes to the Festival with his latest hi-tech wizardry. He samples words from audience members, mixing them with a drum and bass, and some amazing FX, which then becomes huge music as his 3 aero-tech glo-balls bounce off the 3 sensors on each forearm, and varied by his foot pedal. His mechanical dog, Eric is now so popular, he has become a rival, so Joel left him at home this time.
However it is not until you see Joel swinging and rotating in a bungee hoist, maintaining a 3-club juggle in mid-air, that you finally realize that he is not only the funniest improviser, the cleverest tech-head, but possibly our best juggler, too.
Then there is Tony Rooke (a.k.a. Tony Macaroni), the Father of the Festivals. His face looks like Hanging Rock, sundered horizontally whenever he smiles. He knows and loves everyone in the Circus community. His endearing stutter is fairly controlled when he addresses a group, totally absent when he performs, but rampant in conversation. What a man! He does the 'Swords Through the Basket' routine, only it's a cardboard box, he is his own assistant (in the box!), and the swords are stabbed through holes by a squeamish audience volunteer. "I said Hole 6, not Hole 9!" comes his desperate voice from the box, followed by a spectacular squirt of blood!
'The Happy Side Show' is three top solo street theatre performers, Shep, Frodo and the Space Cowboy, who came together at the last Tasmania Festival to present a combined street/freak/horror show which is the opposite to Jim Rose. Somehow it's not scary, and it's the performers themselves who say "Yuk!" We are WITH the boys as they drum furiously on the 44 Gallon steel drum hanging from the combined nipple rings of Shep and the Cowboy. We don't seem to mind the Suitcase-hanging-from-the-Penis-Ring-on-the-High-Unicycle trick and we're all so relieved for these splendid young men when they finally get through their self-imposed nightmares, unscathed.
Vulcana Women's Circus is there. Like any normal group of women, you've got some odd shapes and unique faces. You've got hair, you've got muscles, you've got a few kids around, and you've got laughs. And there is also a solidarity and generosity in the group. They are ambitious to achieve pyramids, group bike, duo aerial, and maybe even a bit of juggling. Like everyone at these Festivals, they share.
Yes, jugglers are there, too, in numbers. There's a brief hour of silly combat and sports. Rule-changes on the run, and frequent pitch invasions assure that the best juggler never wins, as the crowd chants for its favourite, Tina, from Sweden, even when she has been eliminated.
The juggling crowd are always out there passing, multi-plexing, comparing toys, flashing numbers. They stop momentarily to sit at the feet of the legendary "Mr Spin" from Adelaide as he does his 9 balls. This draws us all in to his show where, in 20 minutes of high octane silliness, we can lose sight of the pure skill and hard work behind say, the 2 full-metal baseball bats, spinning like propellor devilsticks on one hand-stick each.
There are the stalls, the massage tents, the 'street pitches', the mime and clown intensives, the Yoga, the Feldo; and did I mention the 'Big, Big Show'? It's another Festival tradition, where we get to see the best of the best, often blended with kids and other beginners.
Behind the scenes, in the cafes and the bar, new ideas are discussed, new alliances made, new plans hatched. At the evening talkfests, New Circus Oldies are listened to, and respectfully questioned. The ad hoc band re-forms nightly to accompany the Renegade acts, some of which are very bad indeed! But the dominant sound rising even over the sound of drums is hilarious laughter.
As Willie Ramsay pointed out, "They're all funny", and as Gary Brophy agreed, "They're a weird mob!"