What does it mean to be human? Is circus an art form that can unpack philosophical questions like this? In Humans Circa aims to explore both of these ideas in their new show that is both awe-inspiring and stripped-back at the same time. With minimalist lighting and staging, the show explore this theme by focusing on the performers themselves, their incredible skills and their artistry and what’s best about contemporary Australian circus.
Now, I have to make a confession. I’m a Circa fan-boy from way back, and it was Circa that inspired me to get into all things circus when I saw their show By the Lights of Stars That are No Longer 8 or so years ago. I’ve watched the company grow and diversify over the years and have seen almost every one of their shows that have come through Brisbane, usually with a huge smile on my face. As a local carnie, seeing a Brisbane-based circus company grow rapidly and reach international acclaim has been inspiring, but I have been disappointed by the fact that they haven’t been fully embraced by local audiences in the way that they regularly flock to the musical theatre productions that tour through the state and new works by Queensland Ballet.
If the audience’s reaction to Humans is any indication, this is set to change. In many ways, Humans is a coming home for Circa and an opportunity for the company to build the audience and respect in their hometown that they receive all around the world. It is the first piece of a new three-year partnership with QPAC that was announced in September that seeks to ‘further enable the ensemble to push the boundaries of circus and grow the opportunities to present ground-breaking works to audiences in Queensland’ that will give ‘Circa the chance to regularly present its creations to Brisbane audiences.’ But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Humans begins by showcasing us the acrobats themselves. One by one they come on and off the stage, changing into their costumes for the show, as QPAC’s Playhouse theatre slowly fills for the night’s show. They show us a piece of their ordinary selves, something we can all connect to, before the show starts. A pile of clothes is then placed on the stage, which slowly comes alive. Bridie Hooper, slowly emerges, twisting and contorting into impossible shapes, before finally, she shows us her face, a shred of humanity, before contorting some more, struggling against herself in shapes so absurd, that the audience can’t help but laugh. And then she’s free, the lights drop and a violin sounds and the show begins.
The 10 member cast introduce themselves to the audience, first individually, tumbling with increasing ferocity, then in duos and trios, connecting in all possible ways, even by pony tails, smashing into each other, either helping or hinder, showing shades of traditional circus tricks that we all recognise, but using every pathway possible with their strength, balance and flexibility to get there. These are acrobats and performers are at the peak of their game, showcasing physical feats most of the audience couldn’t imagine doing themselves. The piece is set to gypsy folk song, Etno Camp by Lajko Felix, which slowly builds in a pounding intensity, that the performers match. The pace is unrelenting and my heart is pounding. It all builds to a crescendo with Cecilia Martin under lights on the dance trapeze. And black out. Fuuuuuuuccckkk. Wow. I finally take a breath. It’s 15mins in and that’s just the first piece. Welcome back Circa, Brisbane has missed you.
Humans is a showcase of all that is great about new circus. There is no focus on tricks and applause, but an exploration of how the artistry of circus can explore characters themes and emotions while still blowing your mind with incredible skills. Being a Circa piece, it is filled with the tumbling, contortion and strong and diverse partners acrobatics and balances that has made it so famous. Humans also showcases a range of other circus skills throughout the show, including hand balancing, aerial straps, teardrop and dance trapeze to whet the audience’s appetites. Pieces that particularly resonate with the audience are ones that showcase their continued development of ‘toss the girl’, an artform that Circa helped bring back into contemporary circus over 8 years ago, and those that embrace clowning and quirkiness. Of the latter, the performers explore just what is possible when you find someone who dances to the same rhythm as you, set to the fantastic Please, Please, Please by James Brown, and try to answer the question, is it possible to lick your own elbow? Go on, I’ll wait until you’ve tried.
While all cast members are fantastic at what they do, there are a few stand outs. Cecilia Martin, strong and fearless in everything she does. She is often most at risk throughout the show, including hand balancing at the top of a three high. Bridie Hooper, an incredibly multi-skilled performer, shines with every moment she has on stage. She bases, flies, contorts, performs aerials and seduces with the perfect dead-pan expression that often has the audience in stitches. Nathan Knowles, invites, nay seduces the audience into each own of his pieces, particularly a hand-balancing act where his legs almost superfluous. And Keaton Hentoff-Killian can only be described as a having springs instead of legs as he tumbles with what can only be described as a combination of lightness and ferocity.
Compared to many of their other shows, Humans has been through multiple developments over an extended period of time and it shows. The show is tight and acrobats effortless fly on and off the stage and connect with each other in ever increasingly weird and wonderful ways. Each piece is perfectly matched to a song that drives it to a more powerful place. At a Q and A after the show, Yaron Lifschitz, Circa’s Artistic Director tells us that that he buys 100’s of albums to find the perfect song for each act of the show.
There are very few slips throughout the show and only a few brief moments where the show lagged or got a repetitive. My only real quibble is that Circa continues to divide role of performers across traditional gender lines, particularly between bases and flyer, and I would love to see the company push explore non-traditional gender roles in circus in future pieces. Despite this, most pieces build with a relentlessness that has me gasping and begging for more. At many moments throughout the piece, a punter sitting next to me cannot hold her awe at what she’s seeing. At one point, as four two highs bring Bridie Hooper to a precarious split balance in centre stage, her ‘Oh My!’s are coming so thick and fast that I thought she was going to pass out. At many moments my partner leans over to me and whispers, ‘Wow!’ and he’s not easily impressed. And me? Well, I may have looked like the Joker throughout, transfixed, with a huge smile on my face.
Human’s final piece is the culmination of all aspects of humanity they’ve touched on throughout the show. The cast slowly walks towards us, occasionally alone, often bumping into each other, influencing each other’s journey. They help each other, hold each other back and knock each other down, pull each other off their paths, and for much of the time try to find their own way. It is both a metaphor for life in general and for the lives of the performers themselves – they forge their own path, they have given all of themselves in the pursuit of their passion, and they show us what is possible when one gives everything in the pursuit of what they love. But ultimately, they also show us what it means to be human – that when we come together, get into synch, inspire each other and create together, that we can truly achieve something great.
Humans is new circus at its finest and shows both what is possible with this artform and why Circa continues to take the world by storm. The audience was transfixed throughout and gave the company multiple standing ovations at the end of the show. Hopefully I can get back for a second round and I cannot wait to see what comes next from the company’s new partnership with QPAC.
Humans was on at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC from 6- 9 December 2018.
Performed by Caroline Baillon, Marty Evans, Scott Grove, Keaton Hentoff-Killian, Bridie Hooper, Todd Kilby, Nathan Knowles, Cecilia Martin, Daniel O’Brien and Kimberley O’Brien
Director Yaron Lifschitz
Technical Director Jason Organ
Costume Design Libby McDonnell