Australia has many treasures, and contemporary circus is one they are renowned for. Circa has been touring the world since 2004 and making a name for itself as the company whose shows push the boundaries of what we think of as circus in exciting and joyous ways, such as an act with a woman solving a Rubik’s Cube while lifting a man, or a silks act while disguised as a fox.
Next week Circa will be stopping in Chicago on a leg of its US tour. The tour will showcase two of their productions, Beyond a cabaret style show for all ages, and Carnival of Animals, a new work featuring rollicking good fun. Carnival of Animals also features themes of change and environmental care paired with classical music and all aimed at a younger audience. For Circa’s Chicago debut, they chose to perform Carnival of Animals rather than Beyond. Circa will be in town for two shows only, Wednesday, March 23, and Saturday, March 26, at the Harris Theater. Tickets are only $12 and both shows are close to selling out already.
Yaron Lifschitz is the artistic director at Circa. He took the time time to speak with me about the inspiration behind his creation and the talented acrobats he enjoys working with.
What should an audience unfamiliar with contemporary circus expect to see in Carnival of the Animals? They will see lots of tumbling, skipping, diving, bending and lifting. Some red noses, playfulness, a tiny bit of music, some miniature circus acts and red balloons.
What is the inspiration behind Carnival of Animals? How did the music of Camille Saint-Saëns influence the production? It was an opportunity to create a show for the Out of the Box early childhood festival that happens here in Brisbane. It combines a couple of things that are important to me, first of all classical music. One of the great things that circus and dance and physical performance can do is keep alive the tradition of music as an important part of human endeavor and creation. We all walk around listening to music on headphones now and a lot of the music is music that may not be there in a year or two. But there is this tradition of music that is incredibly important and valid but its dying because its put in to concert halls where audiences watch it in antiseptic ways which are not in accord with how we consume culture, and it’s very difficult to walk with headphones and listen to a Mahler symphony. It doesn’t really make sense that way, so one of the things we can do is make music visible or make it flesh, bringing it to life will help us reimagine it. Carnival of Animals is a logical choice for that because it connects the young audience with their experiences.
The other thing it does is talk about the world and environment and biodiversity and the importance of caring for our environment. These are increasingly important issues of existential concern to our species. Its possible that there will be children today who may live at a time when there won’t be an elephant on the planet— which is a ridiculous situation to find ourselves in. We combine an environmental concern and engagement with classical music—in a sense dealing with two possible endangered species. At its heart Carnival of Animals is about the magic of transformation, this idea that the core thing that art does is create metamorphosis. So changes in Carnival are really important.
Do you think it is important to have a contemporary circus geared towards a young audience in the US so they have a cultural context for the experience? Do they need access to circus at an early age to keep this art form alive? That sounds good! I’m certainly in to the idea of having works that are seen by young audiences. The charge is—who knows? Contemporary circus is a young art form and there is no guarantee it will still be around in 20 years in the way we understand it today. I hope it is, but I don’t treat young audiences as future audiences. I treat them as legitimate cultural consumers in the present here and now and I think that’s the best way to think about it because they have thoughts and feelings that I believe can be accessed and enhanced by their experience of circus art too.
Recently, I took my son –who is a 14-year-old special needs kid (who doesn’t generally enjoy my work that much) – to see a New Zealand dance company with 5 women, a Maori inspired traditional story arts company, and he sat there for 70 minutes like I’ve never seen. So who can say why anyone likes anything or why anything works?
Can you tell me something about the current cast?The current cast is beautiful. They are a very warm group of very special acrobats. Rowan is the strongest female acrobat I’ve ever seen. Paul is our elder statesman and is an extraordinarily gifted Australian acrobat with liquid movement. Billy, who does the tissue routine, is a very engaging and quirky performer, and Connor out of UK, is an exceptional pole artist. It’s a very sort of joyous company. I’m looking forward to having them on tour in the US.
Can you tell us a bit about how you became a circus creator? I tried to be a theater director but I didn’t do very well at that. I liked some things about it—I liked the idea of being in the theater and the possibility of working with people and making stuff, but I was looking for something more immediate and actual. So I had a chance to do circus and figure a few things out and ask some questions and I like it a lot.
How does your background in theater influence your artistic directing with Circa? Not much. I just try to find the right artists and stay out of their way mostly. No one gets involved in circus because they want to get told what to do by somebody else. So a lot of what I do is to kind of provoke them and challenge them and give them some ideas, but try not to do too much.
What does America need to know about contemporary circus? We’ve been coming to the states since 2007 or 2009. We’ve had very different shows in the same venue, but this is our first visit to Chicago and we’re very excited about that. The thing that always astounds me about America is this extraordinary diversity. The challenge for an audience is to not think of everything ‘circus’ like it’s a nouveau cirque Las Vegas experience. Hopefully we are one of a whole group of companies that serve as an antidote to that sort of commodified entertainment.