I’ve been waiting to see this show for a long time, ever since I heard about this new collaboration between several of the most talented women in the entire Australian circus scene. GUSH is a new collaboration between Bianca Mackail, Anna Yen, Mayu Muto and director Celia White, each of who are renowned performers, artists, and visionaries. Each of them has a prestigious pedigree of performances behind them, in many different artforms. Their shared meeting in this space for circus sees them bring a slew of vibrant skills together to create a fantastical world of macabre creature-like acrobatic constructions.
The performance is held in an impromptu theatre in the Stores Building, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. I love this old building. What is it about industrial architecture that is so perfect for making toothsome fleshy work in? Even the makeshift stage created by transforming a training space with blackout curtains, has an aura about it. The simple set of unadorned lamps, there cords carelessly rolled out across the stage. Mechanical and organic makes for such a good juxtaposition, it gets me every time. The strange contraptions of the industrial yesteryear, once considered wondrous for their usefulness and their ability to reduce labour, now archaic architecture for our artistic performing spaces.
The performers are masked, always. It is strange how much connection one can feel even without eye contact, it seems incongruous. The constant masking melds the performers into one another. I am familiar with each of these women and their performing styles, and yet they melt, they fuse in and out. I can no longer recognise dancers legs or acrobats arms, the three waltz and fight in turns. Cloth becomes bandages, robes, tensile connections, weapons, obscuring and inviting your imagination to fill in the narrative.
There are some truly terrifying monsters. What strange creatures can come from the human mind? A coat worn on legs, deceptively simple to write about, deeply unsettling to observe. Why is a common thing, twisted just once, suddenly so macabre, so un-right. Shoes on hands create a four-hoofed monstrosity, wigs that are more than a hair accessory…
The bare lamp shades. The coiled ropes. The female body, the human body, deconstructed into parts and pieces, reconstructed into strange distortions. The complicated and hard-to-follow acro balance poses. A sound track that meandered and raged by turns. Dresses that floated, filled with Gollum-like hands emerging from within. An incredible balancing act by Yen, against all belief walking on a slackline rope in high heels, whilst her counterparts flow beneath her, like ephemeral water creatures, like strange catfish from fairytales, like masked bedouin.
White has been working in the contemporary circus world for a long time, wresting with the human form, the female form, the boxes it is habitually forced into. Breaking it back out again. There is not a piece of work she has made that doesn’t have a strong political subtext running through it, and the story that runs through this one is of the female body, the way it is caged, and how it seeks release. How do we even define monsters? Does a woman become a monster when she refuses to be boxed by societal expectation? When she overconforms, and distorts her own true self? What maketh a monster? A creature beyond our control? A creature that will hurt us, in insidious ways? Do they come at us in the night, or are they waiting inside, just behind the closed eye?
The spectre of the uncontrolled female body is one that consumes a large part of the world’s politics, as recently highlighted again in the series The Handmaidens Tale based on the novels by Margaret Atwood. Note too, Atwood highlights in interviews, there is not an element of those books that she fabricated, every aspect she has plucked from a true happening in history or the present day. The female body is under observation. What happens when it is released is anybody’s guess.
I love watching new works by familiar artists. I love to see where an artist attacks their opus from next. Each time refining, honing in, angling for the next clear vision of their goal. Much like Genevieve Butler from my previous review, White has returned to a familiar theme, and attacks it afresh with gusto, with aplomb.
There are never any tricks per se, although the skill level is supreme. It is fantastic, refreshing, I am bored of the whole do a trick and lap up the applause. The modern circus audience is still learning to watch and feel the tension of a show, without dissipating the energy of their attention with genial handclapping. No, like when watching opera or fine dance, you wait, and feed on the energy, and at the end you pour all your appreciation into a rousing standing ovation, which this cast received from nearly all of their sold-out opening night crowd.
The show includes one of the absolute best lyra routines I have seen in ages. The lyra is a brutal apparatus, a big, heavy, clunky piece of metal. One that is unforgiving, and can literally concuss you if treated with disrespect. It’s a hard apparatus to learn, its aficionados enduring years of deep bruising to become its master. And nearly all artists conquer it by hiding its weight, by making themselves fluid and femme-like on its cutting circle, by demonstrating effortlessness and fluidity, as if it wasn’t a great big hulking welt of steel.
But not here. The apparatus released suddenly, flies wildly through the air. Mackail and Muto, demonstrating visible exertion as they near the climax of the show, attack its pendulum swing with ferocity, climbing, tumbling, arcing with brutal strength and grace by turns, the kind of familiarity with the apparatus and each other that only comes with years of training. It’s wild. It’s awesome. It’s worth going back for a second look. I might just even.
It’s all super tight for an opening night show. It’s marvellous. It’s weird. It is deeply disconcerting. It is freedom in many ways. I am a convert. I find myself at the end of the show sitting forward on the edge of my seat, my mouth open, creative image after image filling my mind, hands on face, heart beating loud, wondering what strange creature will emerge next, anticipating with bated breath the final reveal of the unadorned humanity beneath…
Monsteria by GUSH is presented by Brisbane Powerhouse and Vulcana Women’s Circus and is showing at Wonderland Festival from 30th Nov – 3 Dec.
Performers and Co-Creators – Bianca Mackail, Mayu Muto, Anna Yen
Director and Co-Creator – Celia White
Production Assistance – Elyse Fitzpatrick