A GooD Catch
Casting Offis an acrobatic show performed by three generations of women circus performers. The show pushes the boundaries of a genre that has been expanding dramatically.
The title of the show suggests several things. For acrobats, it refers to a specific aerial circus skill. For us earth bound mortals, it’s a call to new beginnings and adventures.
For the performers of this show, it refers to casting-off the self-limitingassumptions that come with age,gender and the sources of wisdom.e.
Through the show, the troupe play out their life challenge as a series of physical castings off—in the knitting sense. They take their audience through a series of loops, twists and turns to describe how they have maintained and broaden their thoughtfully constructed lives. Casting off, here, refers to what they have done, to challenge forces that work to fray their lives.
Unsurprisingly, the performers’ stage personas areKnit, Slip, and Pearl. Their crocheted costumes are a decidedly domesticated, almost “anti-glamour” statements. They could have originated a communal knitting circle...an original secure space where any number of pearls can be safely dropped.
Unusual for a contemporary circus, Casting Off has no favourite-beats soundtrack or strong narrative arc. The performers construct a soundscape of verbal patter. It consists of statements you might hear from performers—who are friends, colleagues and comrades—as they develop a show away from their audiences ears. The audience is taken into a very personal, vulnerable and authentic world of circus-craft.
The performers share their self-doubts, understandings and advice. They even verbalised the sort of self-talk, that for many performers, must chatter away in the background while on stage.
A show devised within more “muscular and fearless” assumptions would not “give the game away” so readily. Similarly, as an all women troupe, they don’t have to default to the role of foil to various manly and heroic feats.
These hyper-real women even humorously weave in deliberate mistakes... showing we don’t have to be perfect.
Their vulnerability and the understanding we gain that they are doing the best they can in balancing their broader lives with their undoubted skills, adds another level of awe and respect to the daring, skilfulness and dexterity on display.
Casting off, demonstrates that extraordinary things can be achieved when experience and knowledge melds with youthful capability and endurance. Here the troupe realise their hopes through trust, confidence and self-belief.
Head First Acrobats
How many set-ups with teasingly homoerotic potential, can one circus show sustain? Plenty... when Head First Acrobat’s Railed locates four frisky, highly physicalised bandits in the (very) Wild West and arms them only with their best circus tricks.
Even if they are just very good actors—which must be part of the skills-set—their camaraderie, playfulness, familiarity and sheer joy-in-companionship is inviting and infectious. Between wacks of tom-foolery, interspersed with a little horse play, they execute their extraordinary physical feats within a secured and safe context of male friendship and masculine bonding—supported by a driving soundtrack.
As a masculinised romp, Railedis a new-age form of camp, devised in the metrosexualised, hipster era... Gone are the double-entendres and glitterised-campy devices of a vampier age.. ever plotting to trick the boys together in an imagined act of delicious unnaturalness... Gone also, are the mumbling, neurotic, closeted cowboys of the windswept High Planes.
Railed annihilates at a stoke, whole genres happy to mine eternally negative and unresolvable images of self...
These are a posse of happy cowboys; physical, familiar, flirty and ever ready to play. Quite the opposite to an act of unattainably chiselled Chippendales...
The strong plot line of Railed, points to a form of circus that advances the genre beyond a collection of highly impressive physical acts...that must be the assumed position.
The strong narrative arc, propels the show forward, helping audiences to shape what they are seeing and experiencing as the troupe’s slam out and endless circus tricks and turns.
The plot line draws the audience into an ever wider imaginary world. And sitting within it, the answer to the great question seems so obvious... Who wouldn’t want to run away and join the circus?
Imagine if these chaps were a sample of your companions. Along the way, you could effortlessly pick up a couple of sharp tricks and be dragged into a whole lot of shenanigans and horse-play. brrr brrr...
Karma Dance: Raina Peterson & Govind Pillai
In Bent Bollywood, classically trained Australian-Indian dancers, Raina Peterson and Govind Pillai, reclaim the original sensual context and purposes of the classical dance tradition of South India.
Dating back millennia, the original erotic-temple dance was “cleaned-up” to conform to the evangelical-Victorian values of the late colonial era and separated from its original religious context.
A culturally conservative elite of the Indian Republic continues to hold onto this whitewashed vision of its own cultural inheritance.
Hindu is the only major religion in the world, where sensuality is a gift from god. In turn, expressions of sensuality serves as a form of prayer.
By constantly shifting their roles and sensual expressions, the dancers embrace the sexual fluidity of the deities and the creation stories.
As a modern queered performance, Bent Bollywood is more a cultural reclaimation than and act of subversion.
Its sensate meanings has always been there. Any subversion of reigning cultural values is incidental and as a result of reclaiming the context and authenticity of an ancient and elemental art form.
Claiming the classics
An evening with Mama Alto
In Exquisite, transcendent chanteuse Mama Alto reclaims the original meaning of the term, Diva.
Mama deplores its contemporary meaning related to difficult and demanding women. She believes the term is better understood as an attempt to denigrate talented and independent women.
As Mama embraces the original meaning of Diva, it's easy to see its current use as little more than an unsubtle, misogynistic sledge.
It wasn't always so. As Mama points out, the term was actually the original descriptor for the divine feminine... and Latin for the female god.
Mama uses relaxed patter, gentle wit and soulful, torched vocals to beautifully demonstrate and reclaim the term for herself and those she admires—and easily taken away by anyone present.
Her patter is extraordinarily warm and engaging, revealing a wit and repartee that only adds to the arresting, soul-touching reach of her sinuous vocals.
In Exquisite, Mama channels the lives and songs of some of her more revered Divas. These include Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne.
...And then she relates the amazing tale of Gladys Bently; a cross dressing Afican-Amercian lesbian who headlined one of Harlem’s great clubs of the 30s. She was backed-up by a chorus line of drag queens... Did anyone know then, that "these were the days"?
For Mama, a Diva is someone who steadfastly maintains their individuality, so they can more fully realise their potential.
History is replete with such people. Often they realised their dreams at great personal costs and usually against the grain of prevailing ideas on patriarchy, race, gender and class.
It's within these struggles that Mama's songs so searingly express her Diva's worlds.
Despite often marginalised origins, Mama's Divas, through their achievements and musical expression, have spoken directly to so many people. In their own, personalised ways, they carved out new roles. In the process, they have helped change the world.
A Diva is a talented, perservering individualist who is to be revered... and that applies to Mama, all her Divas and and those who can hear her call.
Queering the Paradigm
Six Stars: You won't see better
In Twelfth Night, The HandleBards—a British troupe of cycling troubadours—realise the exceptional feat of performing a play from the esteemed English canon, in a way that is contemporary, comprehensible and comedically inventive.
Their bicycle-driven aesthetic draws audiences into a comfortably familiar, happily-retro England. Appearing somewhat Blyton-esque in shorts, braces, long socks and silly play mustaches, they are only too ready to lift “lashings of lemonade” from their easily duped audience.
The all-male troupe of four, work the play’s extraordinarily queering content for all its worth, firmly planting it closer to its somewhat lower-brow origins.
The HandleBards bring to the fore Shakespeare the tease. He is the conjurer of endless gendered confusions and fluid possibilities; fluffed up with generous amount of cross-dressing opportunities and same-sex reveries...
In Twelfth Night, a man plays a woman, who falls in love with a man, who is a woman pretending to be a man, while being played by a man... I think that’s how it goes..
The play was written to be performed on the aforesaid night—twelve days after Christmas. The feast fulfills a similar role to that of (the real) Mardi Gras. It is a time when the normal order of things in relation to gender, sex and class, are turned topsy-turvy.
In the entirely queered world of Elizabethan theatre (even by our contemporary meanings), the law required men to play the women’s parts. At such carnivalesque times as the Twelfth Night, it was not a big ask to get the fluid world of the theatre, out from under-the-stairs, and onto the main stage.
As always, the Theatre provided a safe space for those within. It also offered a license for the broader populace to let loose on flights of what we would recognise, as queered imaginings.
Shakespeare had to survive on his wits. There was no currency in subsidies. At the Globe, his audiences were the cabbage throwers and rabble-rousers, wandering in and out of the stalls at will; ever happy to offer their tuppence-worth for nothing.
That such a subversive construct as Twelfth Night was presented to such a rabble, is enough to make today’s gender studies doctoral candidate screw up their dissertation.
In the early nineteenth century any potentially socially destabilising content in the text was systematically bowlderised when Shakespeare was systematically shorn of its naughty bits by none other than Dr Thomas Bowlder. His contribution to medicine has failed to leave a trace.
Shakespeare was now perfectly primped to appease the stultifying needs of the Victorian era. The polite classes could rest, assured that the received culture was indeed ennobling—to their limiting tastes.
Even today, the broader culture continues to emerge from the suppressive urges of the era.
These days, while the texts have been restored, the ennobling urges continue, with many productions forgetting their cabbage-throwing origins. Too many culturally-worthy processes and any number of avant guardist re-imaginings, can leave the texts marooned on the elevated perches of an unreachably high cultural plane.
Lesser mortal can feel somewhat culturally inadequate as they fail to fully comprehend its content. They could assume it’s a consequence of the text’s naturally fading language form. And that does remain a challenge.
The HandleBards approach determinately deflates any lingering cultural pretensions attached to the texts. Through a repertoire of finely-honed theatrical skills and understandings, they revitalise the original text and illuminate its intent.
With breathless athleticism and split-second timing they physically engage the text’s comic possibilities. In their dexterous hands, paradox piles onto paradox, until there is only farce.
In reclaiming the Bard’s original tone and flavour, the HandleBards’ Twelfth Night rolls out as an endless high-octane romp of queered hijinks; as modern and subversive as tomorrow.
From a post-gay world
Cracked Prince Theatre Company
The Cracked Prince Theatre Company’s Macbeth in Space takes the broadly understood set ups and characters of Macbeth and reboots them through a range of refreshed and definitely less gloomy settings.
With each act, the story transmogrifies— taking along with it, its collection of ruthless royals, multiplying ghosts, coven of witches and moving bushes.
Each setting is expressed through its own range of recognisable genre-related conventions. The inter-galactic space story, morphs into Sam Spade noir; before ending as a dusty denouement in a shoot-em-up western; with or without spaghetti... but with an added dash of Oklahoma.
The multiple set ups, gives the young cast plenty to creatively explore, inhabit and express. They are young, because most of them are still attending Eltham High School in Melbourne. At Fringe, which the company attends annually, they play in a commercial theatre and are reviewed on the same basis as any other production. This is a real-world theatre experience for high school students.
The extraordinary level of creative attainment might suggest that Eltham is a performing arts high school... or that the performances are the outcomes of the formal drama teaching program.. But no, the school is a seemingly average suburban high school and the theatre company houses the voluntary, after hours, extra curricula activity. It accepts all comers... with no auditions,
Through drama, the company’s productions help students find, confirm and develop their own creative voices and personal modes of expression. Along the way are avenues for students to develop their own writing and stage-craft capabilities.
The company adds an additional professional gloss to its productions, by engaging two early-career acting graduands. They help anchor some productions and serve as acting mentors. And some performers just can’t leave school, sticking around for a few extra years.
The company’s activities are an integral part of the wider school’s long instituted inclusion and mutual respect programs. These were instituted to address the school’s fair range of issues around ethnicity, refugee intakes, domestic dysfunctionality, bullying and sexual and gender identity. A negative experience with any of these can inhibit a young person from confidently reaching or even recognising their own capabilities.
It may be suburban, but Eltham is not your average school. For years, it has been uniform-optional, flown the rainbow flag and marched in Melbourne Pride. All the while it was producing imaginative and challenging plays—sometimes with maturely-handled same-sex attracted themes.
Certainly, the outcomes of the company's approach successfully links personal development to expanded creative expression; with greater success than what can ever be achieved at a rugby-obsessed private school...
Advancing the genre
Six Stars: You won't see better!
Scotland! is a master work of a trio of young men who believe somehow, they need to start their careers over.
Jonathan Tilley, Sam Dugmore, and Oliver Nilsson are respectively, English, Australian and Swedish. Together they make up The Latebloomers. They formed after meeting-up at clown school in Paris—where they just may have stumbled on the meaning of life.
As individuals, their origins might suggest a predictably lame skit. But for this lot, such an obvious angle has no such legs. No; together this trio are masters and maybe pioneers of something way sweeter and more enduring.
Scotland! is a whimsically absurdist piece of comicality; confected for our sheer delight. The troupe doesn’t just play to the audience; they drag them over the drawbridge, into the heart of an endearingly absurdist world... It a refreshing and revitalising experience; a tonic to defrag and rejig even the most jaded of minds.
So, what’s it about, ...well, nothing... it’s absurd! Ostensibly, the audience is invited to believe it’s a homage to all things Scottish...and it could be... if that's what you're after!
And while it’s a touch less reverent than the Edinburgh Tattoo, it starts with the same kit of kilts and bagpipes; songs and swagger.
The troupe musters-up, out of nothing, anything else vaguely Scottish to feed an ever-evolving mind-gallop into an array of extravagant—and at times quixotic— adventures and escapades.
As they plop into any number of land and time-scapes, their canvas is a gloriously foggy, damp and wonderfully imagined mythical past—even if it was only yesterday.
While there is the definite arc of a storyline, it makes little narrative sense; and does that matter anyway?
But its components are the themes and counter-themes of an expertly crafted piece of theatricalised imagination. With its audience in tow, the themes gallop out; combining, weaving and colliding with each other as deftly and magnificently as any finely written and expertly performed piece of music.
Through mime and true clowning skills, the trio steadily prises open the audiences’ adult minds—inducing states of child-like merriment. It is a refreshingly luxuriant, joyously whimsical mind-scape; the keys to which many adults have long lost.
The emotional responses of the audience points to the trio's extraordinary acting skills—the quality of which may be hidden behind the primacy of the comedy. But their skills are gloriously to the fore in the periods of pathos that so beautifully counterpoints the forward action. These are pauses of show-stilling tenderness, sadness and ultimately, transcendence. Maybe there is a meaning after all.
The Latebloomers have firmly taken the reigns of the great English tradition of absurdist humour; and steered it in a fruitful direction. Within the genre, it must be difficult to cast a shadow beyond the monumental shade thrown by Monty Python.
Fifty years ago, Python definitely played a leading role in highlighting and deflating the sheer silliness that lingered over post-colonial, trying-to-swing Britain. With its absurdities turned into jokes, all that was left, was to let it fall as dust...
Of course there were other forces in play, and it was a time where the corsets of society were dramatically loosening all around. For many people in the broader English-speaking world, the period that followed, offered all sorts of new, even unimagined, freedoms and opportunities
But, the scale of those changes, means that today, many are restricted by different kinds of forces. It's easy to be flummoxed by the multiplicity of choices; be overwhelmed by greater personal responsibilities; and be bamboozled by terabytes of digitally generated junk—all lacking any indications of validity.
Were we to stop, we would be soon overwhelmed by the absurdity of just standing still. We would all be begging for a good defrag and rejig; if someone could show us where...
So, as they head toward 30, this trio may think of themselves as Latebloomers... But their contemporary resonance and relevance, suggests they are just starting to sprout...
Advancing the genre
Spectacle & Mirth
The Marvellous Mechanical Musical Maiden looks and sounds exactly what she is...a marvel of the age. The maiden is in fact, a mysterious contraption—an automaton. These are pre-robotic machines, capable of automatically carrying out a range predetermined actions, suggesting a somewhat lifelike capability.
The maiden has been transposed to our times from the recesses of an antiquated amusement arcade or sidewalk. Her origins are in the fin de siècle—a period leading to the end of the 19thcentury. It was a period infused equally with fear and attraction toward the forms of moral and physical decay that might accompany the dawning of the new century. It was accompanied by growing doubts of the promise of ongoing human progress.
As an automaton, the maiden awakes at various stages to view first-hand the progress and consequences of the new century. She reflects her observations through hauntingly melancholic contemporary songs that speak of misplaced expectations, hoped-for connections and abandoned love.
Over her time travels, the musical maiden remains entirely of her original era; always presenting in her 1890s finery—a fulsomely sumptuous costume, featuring a high lace collar, a multi-layered bustier, a protruding bustle and broad paniers.
In reality, her generously comfortable costume conceals an array of wires and buttons. Through a range of gracious gestures, the maiden activates her musical accompaniment, which plays through speakers concealed in her paniers.
The Mechanical Maiden was once a fully human street singer. For a payment, she would sing songs for passers-by. However, one fateful day, she allowed Thomas Edison to record her songs. As she did, she lost for ever ownership of her own voice, and the ability to control her own life. Her agency.
The encounter with Edison, reduces her to an automaton. She becomes a machine in the guise of a human. From the initial encounter, she is generally inert. But occasionally, responding to passing "human sparks", she awakens; sings and talks, until the spark, like a battery, fails.
The maiden’s audience are her “dear ones”. It is a particularly old fashioned and endearing form of address. Cleverly, for these demanding times, it’s a term that is entirely pan-sexual— encompassing all sexes, sexualities and possible forms of friendship.
For this automaton—a woman who has lost her talents and capabilities to an emerging technology—“dear ones” is her declaration of the need for continued human connectiveness.
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