As the Circus world knows, Con Colleano, the legendary wire-walker was an Australian of Aboriginal descent. I first learned he was Australian from Geoff Greaves' book 'The Circus Comes To Town'. Later, in 1993,Mark St Leon told the whole story in his book 'The Wizard of the Wire', published by the Aboriginal Studies Press.
Con Colleano is one of the heroes that I present in my Primary School Show, 'Sawdust Superstars'. I am always conscious of the effect his story might have on Aboriginal children in the audience.
As a 'new-chum', having settled in Australia only 14 years ago, I feel immensely lucky to have had the chance to work in my chosen field (Recreational Circus), with such talented and intriguing young people as I have found in Aboriginal communities.
Several other groups have undertaken similar projects, eg Cirkidz out of Adelaide, The Fruit Flies from Albury-Wodonga, Circus Oz, Fremantle's Bizircus, Pixi Robertson, Robin Laidlaw in the Alice, and Neil Cameron, now Fire-master at the spectacular Woodford Festival, Queensland. These groups, and others, are simply following in the footsteps of the Wirths, Perrys, Lennons, Ashtons and all the other traditional Australian Circuses who blazed a trail across the outback. The roads were long, but the crowds must have been all the more appreciative, to see the wonders of the Circus appear overnight in their paddock, shine brightly, then disappear just as suddenly down the gun-barrel highway.
Six times now I have been invited to the Desert Dust-Up, a Sports and Culture Festival in Warburton, WA. It's about 10 hours NW of Kalgoorlie, and is the largest 'town' in a cluster of communities including Jameson, Blackstone, Warakurna, Wingellina, Tjukurla, Tjirrkarli, Kiwikurra and Wanarn.
Usually I tour the communities first - just me and a Toyota-full of a mini-Big Top, Stilts, Unicycles, Drums, Costumes, Juggling gear, Dress-up Horses, and Gorilla Suits. I'm thrilled when they remember my name, but the little ones, who hardly speak English yet (their second language) call me 'Funnyclown' - a one-word nickname, with the accent on the first syllable.
With only a day at each community, we spend time learning all the techniques, then produce a show for the locals. Sometimes a 'big mob' will turn up for the show, and everyone will want to have a go on the mini-bike, and dress up as the Gorillas. Other times, there may be Law Business going on, and I'm left almost alone with the children, performing for a few older ladies and the dogs.
In Warburton, after two weeks, up to 150 children come with their schools to camp in the school grounds for two nights. During the main day, which also includes the sports carnival, and a thousand other treats, I have the task of persuading and training up to 30 of the kids, aged from 4 to 14. I have to get them dressed up, focussed and happy to perform in the spotlights, to a very big crowd in Warburton, which, if you're a shy 6-year-old from Kiwikurra, must seem like Los Angeles on Oscar night.
How does it work? Don't ask me - but it always does.
Why does it work? I can tell you that.
These kids learn to juggle faster than almost anyone I know. (the fastest learners are the inmates in the Juvenile Detention Centres, in Perth). We don't talk a lot. I don't speak Natjanjarra or Pitjanjarra as well as I should. There are also cultural factors. Most of us use frequent eye contact with children when teaching. This can be threatening to children used to different traditional respect structures. Then there's our western obsession with "Self-Esteem". It is so tempting to say, "Everyone look at Wayne, isn't he doing well?" This is fatal in that group, and very clumsy teaching. Wayne would be obliged, by a custom of 'shame' to stop setting himself above the group. He will either slip quietly away, or drop his standard, or, if he's pretty sophisticated, he will manage to make it into a joke in which I am seen as the silly one. This is acceptable to the group, but clearly a bit of a risk for Wayne.
But here's the point. These children come from a non-literary culture. There is no historic manual passed down about how to make a boomerang or a didgeridoo. Old-fella makes it. Young-fella watches.
It's like that with juggling. The message seems to go straight through the eyes and down to the muscles, without all the verbal and analytical interference and excuses which most of us would fabricate.
Here's another thing. The whingeing threshold. I'm not saying these kids have a higher pain threshold. A cut black knee is as painful as a cut pink knee. But when these kids get the stilts on and go striding off into the bush, they do fall over. But they generally don't bother complaining. Everyone else is laughing anyway. Learning from experience is so much FUN!
Finally, back to the 'Shame' business. Just like the word 'Sorry' that confused us all a few weeks back, Aboriginal people use the word 'Shame' as a shorthand; a portmanteau word which includes subtle concepts of pride, respect, pecking order, and courtesy. So each time I begin to produce a Circus Spectacular with these children in front of their own peers and elders, I am aware that I am a naïve innocent. But that's the wonder of CIRCUS! I'd be out of my depth working with THEIR culture, and it would be arrogant and impractical to come on heavy with OUR culture (folk-dancing, a play, a choir recital). The joy of Circus is that it is Universal. It exists somewhere between Sport, Magic, Yarn-spinning, Ritual, and Theatre. It is made up of short vignettes which all work in
their own way, eg
. Gorilla escapes and embarrasses a girl in the front row
. One small child starts juggling 2 balls, then more and more enter the ring, until it's a mass of happy jugglers - all started by that one little one.
. That little old white-fella (me) is dwarfed by a forest of young, local stilt-walkers. I'm busy looking silly, absorbing any spare 'shame' that might be in the air.
. One by one, the boys show their amazing, self-taught back-flips and front saults. They aren't inclined to take a bow themselves, but I'll get the audience to clap on their behalf, and the boys hear the applause backstage.
No-one seems to be threatened, or at risk of failing, because, after all, they're only doing it to help out that 'funnyclown'.
In this way, without disturbing their cultural sensitivities, the Suitcase Circus is gently letting them experience something of the way WE do things.
These children, and the many young Aboriginals I have met in the Regions and the Cities, have enriched my life considerably. They are living in difficult times. If their experience of the Circus, including my small contribution, helps them grow in confidence and aspirations, then I feel we are part of shaping some outstanding truly Australian citizens and leaders of the future.