Reviews, Stage

Circus Oz: Model Citizen review (Birrarung Marr, Melbourne)

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Circus Oz is the company that wears its heart on its sleeve and puts its money where its mouth is. Within hours of Senator George Brandis announcing his attack on the Australia Council in 2015, its management fired off a condemnation when other arts companies sat on their hands. After last Thursday’s opening of its new show Model Citizen at its big top on Birrarung Marr by the Yarra, they were raising funds for 1000 disadvantaged people to come to the circus –  and this is possibly a bridge too far —  introduced their entire staff, including the marketing and finance teams, for an inclusionary, but very long curtain call.

Circus Oz has always wrapped its elite physical feats and performance skills in the veneer of ramshackle ratbaggery. It’s possibly the only professional circus in the world that tries to make death defying acts look casual. Oh, this old thing where I spin my body in a web of slack ropes, throw knives at my colleagues blindfolded and contort my body into a pretzel? — It’s nothing – don’t mention it. The performers don’t even pause for the ovation the audience is itching to give after each of the 17 feats performed in this two hour show by its cast of 12 (some of whom double in the accompanying five-piece band).

The performers are split between men and women but in the spirt of the show’s opening from Mitch Jones – “Welcome ladies and gentlemen and all those in between!” – let’s not get too binary about it. After all, the show’s title and (very) loose theme – “model citizeny” – is a retort to government imposed conformity from citizen tests to gender issues.

For those who like politics served with their aerial straitjacket escapes, juggling, hula-hooping and superb acrobatics, then Circus Oz is for you. Barely seconds into Jones’ intro Manus is mentioned and clean coal, Adani and gay marriage come soon after. There are two songs in the show – The Weber Song performed by one of the band, Jeremy Hopkins, is set to the tune of Waltzing Matilda and the Intolerance Song is sung by Freyja Edney. The lyrics to both take you back to Circus Oz’s 1978 beginnings and its repudiation of middle class, suburban conformity. The songs’ sentiments feel dated — aren’t we even a little bit more diverse than back then? – or, as the teenager next to me asked: “What’s a Hills Hoist?”.

But you don’t come to Circus Oz for the sharpness of the scriptwriting (a missed opportunity); it’s for the thrill of its physicality. The company calls its brand of circus “revitalising a traditional artform in a uniquely Australian way” and that’s certainly true of its self-deprecating casualness. But more so for the violent abandon the performers seem to adopt as they hurl their bodies through the air, flying, falling and tumbling within centimetres of each other. You can see the same wilful exertion in many of our major dance companies.

What’s different about Model Citizen from previous Circus Oz shows is this is the first under its new artistic director Rob Tannion whose decades working in Europe seem to have injected a Euro feel into the show. Circus Oz sets are often a messy riot of bright colour clashes but Model Citizen‘s is all elegant, Yves Klein blue with precise, oversized props (scissors, a peg, a matchbox, cotton reel). The band, too feels less carni wild and – dare one say it – more Cirque du Soleil – with its upbeat accompaniment in the first half giving way to moody, tinkly instrumentals as a disembodied female voice floats over the darkened stage. Maybe Circus Oz, like Australia, is changing.

[box]Featured image by Rob Blackburn[/box]

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