Sunday 12 June 2016

Close To The Bone - Circus Review

What: Close To The Bone
Where: The Melba Spiegeltent
When: December 11-21
Directed by:  Debra Batton with Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates
Performed by: Beau Dudding, Ben Hendry, Spenser Inwood, Lilikoi Kaos, Nathan Kell, Olivia Porter, Kyle Raftery, Ania Reynolds, Matt Wilson, and Dale Woodbridge-Brown.

Close To The Bone is the newest show in the Circus Oz repertoire and is one of their boutique series.  Being performed at the Melba Spiegeltent, Close To The Bone has been directed by Associate Director Debra Batton and co-directed by Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates from Acrobat.

Yates and Lancaster have been Artists in Residence with Circus Oz for several short stints over the course of 2014.  A tour was cancelled and so Circus Oz decided to create a boutique show specifically for the Spiegeltent.  Batton, who had co-directed the most recent Circus Oz big top show But Wait...There’s More was invited to create the show with Yates and Lancaster and a very special synergy was born.

Acrobat has always eschewed performance escalation and the need to create narrative for circus performance.  At its roots Circus Oz was also founded on the idea of breaking performance rules.  Together, these two creative engines of the circus world have come up with a show that is visceral, honest, and spine tingling.

Close To The Bone celebrates the true nature of the spiegeltent environment which is one of closeness, intimacy, sharing, and – to a certain extent – claustrophobia.  Entering the space I couldn’t help but think how small it is.  The seating is intimate and is set out right up to the tiniest catwalk and stage.  As I looked at the stage all I could think was ‘how on earth can circus feats and acrobatics take place here?’

Despite the proximity and scarcity of space we got a full show however.  We were presented with a full 8 piece live band, aerial acts, juggling, acrobatics, clowning, hoops, unicycles – all of it.  Over the course of an hour I experienced as many moments of awe and wonder and amazement as I have at any big top or main stage circus act I have seen.  In some ways it was even more impactful. 

The tiny stage area meant that there were a lot of balancing and acrobatics which were suspended beyond the stage, right over the heads of the front rows of the audience.  The immediacy of the idea that the performers could fall on an audience member at any moment created a tension all on its own.  Add to that the fact that you see every straining muscle and drop of sweat on the performers faces and you experience the thrill of knowing this is real, it is happening, and every moment holds risk.

One of the things I personally love about traditional circus is the idea that everyone in the troupe does everything – rigs the tents, man’s the stalls and food stands, and performs in the shows.  Close To The Bone takes us back to those days.  Everyone on stage was involved in the mechanics of the performance as well as the artistic elements.  Almost everyone was in the band at some point.  Even Kaos played the squeezy toy turkey leg, and Dudding played the shoes.  Wilson, when not climbing tiny balancing chairs and performing high falls, was rocking out on his base guitar and dressing other performers.  Kaos swept the stage when not blowing up balloons or twirling hula hoops in incredibly mind-boggling ways.  Dudding worked as the show rigger as well as performing acrobatics.  To me this exemplified the bones of circus – an artform always on the edge, surviving through its inventiveness and commitment.  The circus folk living close to the edge, close to the bone.

Batton, Yates and Lancaster were interested in stripping away the expectations of a Spiegeltent performance.  The small stage space, the multi-tasking of the performers, and keeping them out on stage the whole time all contributed to the success of this objective.  The ten performers had to constantly manoeuvre their way around each other and the equipment to get where they needed to be.  Costume changes were done on stage, getting under the feet of the band as they played, equipment was being set up as another performance was still in progress.  You would think all of this activity would just produce chaos, but it was so well choreographed it just added to the immediacy and exposure of the performance.

The stage backdrop was a traditional theatrical star cloth, and the catwalk, whilst small, was set up immaculately upon entry.  There was festoon lighting strung up on the tent roof and all the seating was arranged perfectly.  Everything was set to give the impression of a sophisticated cabaret/burlesque act which would be a typical Spiegeltent performance.  Even the Chinese Pole at the end of the catwalk suggested burlesque.  Over the course of the evening, Close To The Bone slowly chipped away at this facade through simple techniques like not having a back stage, having the band march through the audience rather than staying on stage, and Porter doing her unique hacky sack juggling act on the tables over the audience. 

Traditionally circus performers alway ‘present’ at the end of tricks and it is the audiences job to respond with applause.  I find this creates a disjointedness to the shows.  In Close To The Bone we did not have to worry about this.  The performers went about their performances almost as if we weren’t even there.  They went from trick to trick almost without pause, and transitioned between acts with a seamlessness that would be the envy of most theatre genres.  What this allowed for us, the audience, was the chance to just stay in that entranced sensation of awe.  We were allowed to remain in syncopation with the performers which freed us up to find our own rhythm of response as an audience.  I found this to be incredibly liberating and as a result my responses were more heartfelt and energetic.

The ensemble had a lot of fun with deconstruction.  Wilson deconstructs the burlesque genre by making the only moment of nudity male.  Then, instead of stripping, he actually gets dressed as his aerial act takes place.  Kaos and Kell have fun tossing and catching hula hoops, but instead of the hoops being thrown over her head, Kaos has Kell throw them up her body from the floor.  Spenser explores what it is to be a star, beginning as a Christmas tree and then stripping down to explore star images in her aerial hoop routine.

One of the funnier moments is when Reynolds and Raftery are playing a duet on an upright piano and the troop start doing acrobatics all over the piano, constantly getting in the way and standing on the keys and making all sorts of discordant noises.  Again, that marvellous and elegant deconstruction of expectations at work!

I could go on forever because this show really is that good.  Close To The Bone is brilliant and shouldn’t be missed. 

5 Stars

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