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Q&A/What to SEE/Circus

What to SEE: Friends of the Freo Big Top

29 September 2021

CircusWA will be inviting punters into the Freo Big Top this October, for a fundraising show that promises to envelop audiences in the magic of circus.

This article is sponsored content.

Drinks, canapes, magic and a 360o immersive circus spectacle created and directed by former Circus Oz star Nathan Kell.

That’s what guests can expect from CircusWA’s 2021 fundraiser ‘Friends of the Freo Big Top’. Hosted by local magician Pierre Ulric, the evening will also give audience members an insight into CircusWA’s work and the changes that have been bubbling away inside the Freo Big Top since 2017.

Nina Levy spoke to Jo Smith, CircusWA Artistic Director, and Nathan Kell to find out why you should consider supporting this event.

Nina Levy: CircusWA has been a Fremantle institution for some years now. Tell me about its backstory.

Jo Smith:
CircusWA began its life in the 90s when a group of young circus performers helped settle an arts hub at Old Customs House near Freo Ports and created the company Bizircus. A formal training program emerged in 2001.

A key mentor to this fledgling company was Dr Reg Bolton, teacher and physical theatre artist from England. Reg infused their thinking with a pedagogy where social change, skills and performance were integral. These values have been the bedrock of CircusWA’s programming ever since.

NL: That integration of skills and performance with social change has seen the development of two new programs, one for Aboriginal youth and one for children living with disabilities. Can you tell me about these two programs?

A head shot of a woman with red hair. She is looking at someone or something to the left of the frame and smiling. She wears violet rimmed glasses and a muted violet sleeveless ribbed top with a high neck.
Jo Smith

JS: The Aboriginal and Disabilities youth inclusion programs you mention aren’t exactly new, but more a re-imagining of past programs.

In 2018 – 2019 we partnered with DADAA to co-produce a work with our youth performers and teenagers living with high support needs. The outcome of this process was Experience Collider, presented at Awesome Festival 2019. The process and work were powerful, unearthing the extraordinary stories diverse body types can tell and building relationships between youth. Sadly, this work was put on hold while we all battled our friendly virus. We are now breathing life back into the project with seed funding for a disabilities training program we call “Circus? You Can!”

Hot off the press is an announcement that our Aboriginal Youth Circus Development Program has received funding from a State Government and Healthway co-contribution fund. We will kickstart this with a 15-month program in Armadale delivered in partnership with their Noongar-led Champion Centre.

NL: And then there are your youth troupes, Colliders and Sliders. What do these programs offer?

JS: Sliders has been a part of CircusWA’s training program since 2011. In recent years we have grown into a three-tiered performance program inspiring young people from the ages of 10. Colliders and Sliders are our main troupes with Sliders challenging our most advanced students.

Any young person training in circus, gymnastics or dance can apply to join our troupes. The programs are exist to offer youth in Perth an opportunity to learn the very unique art form of circus and physical theatre. The troupes perform annually at Fairbridge, Fremantle International Street Arts Festival, and the Fremantle Long Table Dinner. In recent years we have been commissioned to create and perform for Perth’s Heritage Festival and at 10 Nights In Port.

We have exciting plans for the troupes from 2022 through to 2024. These include an exchange with Brisbane based Flipside Circus with whom we’ll develop a new work for Awesome Arts Festival in October 2022. Following this we will begin working with MAXIMA Circus co-Director Sally Richardson on a large scale outside production. This production will include exchange opportunities with NICA and we hope to be presenting the work in early 2024.

NL: CircusWA’s Home Brew Cabaret was one of the first shows that I attended after lockdown restrictions eased in Perth last year, but even in WA – where we have been relatively lucky to date – all arts disciplines are feeling the effects of the pandemic. How have CircusWA and the broader circus community in WA been affected by the pandemic?

A performer on stilts wanders amongst people eating food inside a tent lit with fairy lights.
Performer Nel Simpson at CircusWA’s last Friends fundraiser in the Freo Big Top. Photo: Tashi Hall

At the end of 2019 CircusWA was just beginning to emerge from surviving homelessness and debts. At first the pandemic looked impossible get through, but with circus resilience we used our well-honed survival tactics to resolve the issues and search for the opportunities. One of the most important and enduring opportunities was coming together with circus centres across the state and the nation to solidify partnerships and processes.

These partnerships helped generate some amazing online training programs and creative developments. This quick response ensured we kept our artists employed and our students engaged. A new partnership with MAXIMA circus emerged during this time and together we were able to offer artists opportunities to create and make new solo works.

So when the restrictions lifted, the first thing that occurred very organically was a performance of many different works created in lockdown. This was the “Home Brew Cabaret” you mentioned. This show was a reunion, a welcome home and a love letter between artists and audiences.

However, the economic impact is hard to ignore as we all continue to try and rebuild meagre reserves. Perched now on the edge of Spring, the looming COVID-related issue for WA is our locked borders. From October to April every year, Western Australia swells with peripatetic circus artists following the sun and audiences around the world. They teach in our training centres, work in partnerships with local artists, and perform commercially and artistically.

While Fringe World is a large presenter of circus/cabaret shows, it’s not the only platform. There are many vibrant community festivals which bubble throughout spring and summer and all of them call for circus performers. As September prepares to close, we can already feel the demands ramping up. With no circus artists arriving into WA we are preparing for the worst. Potentially we’ll need to reduce our training and workshop programs – which bring us much needed income – and cut back on performances.

It’s not that our West Australian artists don’t have the skills, it’s that they too have human limitations – despite what it seems on stage.

NL: And so this year’s fundraiser must be particularly important! It sounds like a fantastic night, and of course, the highlight will be the performance of Filium, a new work directed by Nathan Kell.

Nathan – you’ve worked internationally as a circus/physical theatre maker and performer. What have been some of the highlights of your career to date?

A man with reddish hair smiles at the camera. His hair is long and tied back in a high bun. The background is out of focus but we can see people,  including a woman holding what might be a bottle to her mouth, and lights. It looks like it is night time.
Nathan Kell

Nathan Kell: I look back with great fondness to my global touring days, when I travelled with a solo street theatre show. I was very proud of that show as it was self-devised and received well by audiences from Dubbo to Dublin to Düsseldorf. 

I’ve also been lucky to have performed with some high-profile companies including Circus Oz, Casus and Stalker. 

One of my theatre highlights would be operating and physicalising the giant one tonne, two storey, animatronic King Kong in an epic musical. They actually created a new Green Room Award category for our ensemble out of that show, which I am proud to have been a part of. 

NL: You grew up in Perth, before leaving to train at the National Institute of Circus Arts – what brought you back home?

NK: I returned for a few reasons. My wife, Alice Kell, secured an artistic associate position with Co3 Contemporary Dance Company. And I was excited for my two young ones to experience a childhood here, around my family and surrounded by the great environment that is WA. 

NL: And how did you come to work with CircusWA?

NK: I have been training with CircusWA for decades. I started learning circus with the school back when it was called Bizircus, in the 90s. It seemed elegant to close the circle and return as a core trainer. 

NL: Tell me about Filium, the show you’re making for CircusWA’s fundraiser. What can audiences expect?

NK: Filium is a show that emerged almost fully formed from my pen. It has traditional circus elements of skill and wonder. It utilises stage craft effects, has performers flying through the air on lines, and clowning around on the floor. It draws heavily from archetype and references what I hope are existential themes.

I have attempted to tread a line between abstraction, symbolism and entertainment. It is my hope that people who are new to physical theatre will get just as much out of it as people who like to approach theatre from a cerebral place. 

It is also my first ensemble work and so having said all that I hope it works for anyone at all! 

When people leave I would hope they feel touched in some way, that they have a sense of connection and wonder at some of the things that connect us. It’s a bold goal, which I approach with humility, but a hope I have, nonetheless. 

Top photo: Nathan Kell in ‘Rising Through Smoke’ by Circus Oz. Photo supplied

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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