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2022-06-25 02:02:55 By : Mr. Xiao Yang

A Good Catch’s Casting Off will be pitched at the International Contemporary Circus Market in Montreal in July. Photo: Scott Hone.

COVID hit the arts industry hard. It hit medium-sized performing arts companies very hard. Tours were cancelled and troupes were locked down in foreign countries, and at home. Creatives were forced to adapt to these new conditions or perish.

Now, with borders reopened and lockdowns seemingly a thing of the past, new processes are being developed and new tours slowly booked.

Here, a range of circus artists working in the small-to-medium sector discuss the impact of the pandemic on their international engagement and their strategies for reconnecting with the world.

Currently unable to tour internationally, Chelsea McGuffin has taken an innovative approach to staging work in her home state of Queensland.

McGuffin, who created her first original show, Cantina, with Strut and Fret productions in 2008, was performing Le Coup (a five-hander set in an old world travelling boxing tent) at Berlin’s Chamäleon Theatre when COVID hit in 2020. Consequently, she and her toddler son, together with her troupe, were locked down in small apartments ‘about the size of a shipping container,’ for more than three months.

Nor was this the only way the pandemic impacted her work.

‘The shutdown has been a great reflection time, not only on my practices but also how I feel my creativity can sit in the new world … In many ways the world stepped into the space in which I spend a lot of my time: the unknown,’ McGuffin said.

Read: Could a purpose-built theatre strengthen Australia’s circus sector?

After the stress of being stuck in Berlin, ‘unable to return home with a company whom I was responsible for,’ McGuffin eventually returned to Brisbane, whereupon she ‘stepped back. I stopped, felt unsure and very unessential. Then, on the other side, I felt like I could rest, reflect, listen, watch, stop. Things that we don’t always have enough time for. I rebranded the company both by name and by intention, to Chelsea McGuffin and Company,’ she explained.

Temporarily unable to tour, McGuffin focused instead on making work she felt mattered.

‘I feel – and since our return to live arts, I feel it more than ever – [that] it is important for me to use the time I have in public view to make sure the moment is used well. Am I saying what needs to be said, heard or seen?’

In 2021, McGuffin produced Hysteria with Backbone at the East Brisbane Bowls Club, featuring a spectacular outdoor highwire rig and with the soundtrack delivered via audience headphones. This event was staged outdoors, so social distancing could be observed by audience members.

Nonetheless, Hysteria also suffered from snap lockdowns in both Brisbane and New South Wales, from where some of the performers travelled.

Her next production was Azul at the Q1 tower on the Gold Coast, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. This theatre restaurant experience, an acrobatic aerial show suitable for general audiences, brought physical theatre to a new venue with dizzying views.

Currently, McGuffin is touring Le Coup to Townsville and starting to curate this year’s Woodford Folk Festival Circus Stage. Like other circus professionals, she’s looking to the future.

‘I am about to remount Le Coup, which is a long way from the work of Hysteria but it has been a great process to remount a work that was created pre-COVID and will take on a new life post-COVID,’ McGuffin said.

‘I would not want to experience what we have all just experienced ever again, but I am thankful for the insight I gained, and it became clearer to me that I needed a new world with new values, and the best way to create that is to live it,’ she concluded. 

Samoan-Australian artist Natano Fa’anana of Casus Circus has been tapping into the trans-Pacific community arts sector, performing cabaret, and reviving older works since the pandemic hit.

Fa’anana was an original member of the Briefs troupe with his brother Fez Fa’anana and Mark Winmill before going on to co-found Casus. The company’s first work was a four-hander, Knee Deep. He has also created a range of other works, including the two-hander You and I; collaborated with dance groups and choreographers in Brisbane and France; and brought together a group of First Nations performers from around Australia in Chasing Smoke (a work originated by Circus Oz in 2017 through the company’s BLAKflip program).

Read: First Nations circus launches new development program

Unable to tour internationally when the pandemic hit, Fa’anana instead imagined a huge local show featuring all the Pacific Islander dance, fire and cultural troupes he could muster.

Featuring 83 performers, Aunties Fiafia Night sold out the Suncorp Piazza during the 2021 Brisbane Festival and was embraced by Brisbane’s sizeable Pacific Islander community.

‘After touring Knee Deep for many years, it felt like isolation to be grounded in Brisbane,’ Fa’anana said.

‘I was a latecomer to acrobatics, but I’d grown up with Pacific Island song, dance and fire nights, so it made sense to bring all my cultures together. We were all stuck here, unable to visit our families and homes on the islands. When we come together and celebrate we are alive, we have each other, we have a new home. Unless you are Indigenous, we are all boat people or plane people,’ he explained. 

At the other end of the scale, Knee Deep made a welcome re-appearance at CircFest Meanjin in 2022. In it, Fa’anana revealed his soul and his full-body tribal tattoos during a touching solo aerial routine, in a show which gives the audience the feeling of interconnectedness that acrobatic performers feel with each other and their apparatus.

Darcy Grant of Adelaide’s Gravity and Other Myths (GOM) spent the COVID hiatus imagining one of the company’s largest works to date.

When COVID hit in 2020, GOM was touring three shows internationally: A Simple Space, Backbone and Out of Chaos. The chaos of lockdowns and border closures meant all three GOM troupes – each featuring some ten acrobats – returned home to Adelaide.

Grant and GOM’s administrators applied for the government’s JobKeeper program and were able to prove that COVID had significantly impacted their business operations. This ensured temporary financial security for the company and their 30-odd acrobats, and gave Grant and GOM the opportunity to create The Pulse, an exploration of large scale acrobatics featuring a 30-strong choir alongside GOM’s acrobats. 

‘This creative choreography in acrobatics follows from the work of Rudi Mineur at Circa, Mr Guang Rong Lu from NICA, Chelsea McGuffin and Jodie Farrugia,’ Grant said.

‘We’ve had key supporters like Wesley Enoch, Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have helped us to realise a show of this scale.’

Following the premiere of The Pulse in 2021, GOM has slowly returned to touring.

‘One of our ensembles left for a tour in Europe last October and our next smaller work will open at the Chamäleon Theater in Berlin in mid-August, after opening Edinburgh festival with MACRO (a collaboration with Djuki Mala) and doing a season of The Pulse there as well,’ said Grant.

The Pulse is a spectacular show, of a size which is only usually seen in Australia with the state ballet and opera companies. Having already played Adelaide and Darwin Festivals in 2021 and Sydney Festival earlier this year (with an Edinburgh Festival season scheduled for August) it will hopefully tour nationally before too long.

Another Australian troupe, the multi-generational trio A Good Catch, are also heading to Edinburgh this August – in their case to play the Edinburgh Fringe.

A Good Catch’s Casting Off played CircFest Meanjin earlier this year at the Brisbane Powerhouse, stunning the audience with their acrobatics and casting cradle trapeze, spun together with spoken word about the joys and challenges of being a woman.

A Good Catch consists of Spenser Inwood, Debra Batton and Sharon Gruenert, aged in their thirties, sixties and forties respectively.

Describing how the pandemic affected A Good Catch’s work, Inwood said: ‘Following our success in Edinburgh Fringe, A Good Catch was preparing to take Casting Off on its first fee-paying international tour to the UK in 2020. This season was initially postponed and then cancelled due to COVID-19. We spent the next eight months in two different states (Tasmania and Victoria) on Zoom – initially making plans B, C and D, still hopeful that touring would be rescheduled. We soon turned our attention to creating our new show Zoë with funding support from the Springboard Program with Melbourne Fringe and Circus Oz.

‘We expected to premiere in October 2020 then October 2021 and now (fingers crossed) premiering in 2022! Although we had developed some physical, acrobatic material we were in the early stages of developing this new work and found it extremely difficult as an online rather than an embodied process,’ Inwood continued.

‘Zoë emerged from working with artist Clara Mee Yee Chan, our costume designer, as we explored posthuman theory and explored new ways of developing ideas. In response to Melbourne’s extended lockdowns we found interesting ways to keep creatively connected online. We generated images, text and sound with our creative team, we discussed posthumanism and often felt incredibly frustrated with the screen! Only after lockdown have we been able to respond physically to the accumulation of ideas that emerged with this unfamiliar methodology,’ she added.

With lockdowns seemingly a thing of the past, Inwood said that she, Batton and Gruenert were slowly retrieving their fitness but have been thwarted by each member of the company contracting COVID at different times.

‘The COVID constraints produced our latest experiment with the circus form and our new work Zoë is strikingly different from Casting Off. We continue to make Zoë, often struggling to find times when the whole team is available: everyone is being pulled in multiple directions as cancelled projects are re-programmed and time lines clash,’ Inwood explained.

‘Excitingly, we have been invited to pitch Casting Off at MICC (the International Contemporary Circus Market in Montreal) in July. We are also taking both Casting Off and Zoë to Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August; hopefully these projects will relaunch our company into the international arena. Meanwhile we develop our marketing and publicity material, book accommodation and flights while responding to registrations for Melbourne Fringe, WA [Circus] Festival and Perth’s Fringe World. Oh, and continue to do the requisite training that is a vital part of acrobatics!’

Charlie Wood, director of Edinburgh’s Underbelly Circus Hub since 2002, said the Hub is re-opening its doors again in August after two years’ hiatus, and many Australian acts – among the world’s best – are being booked.

‘Aussies know how to do it tough,’ said Wood. ‘Happy Sideshow performed in a carpark for their first Edinburgh, and had to scour the town for all the car-owners to clear their venue each night.

‘The competition between dozens of shows from the UK, Europe and beyond is tough. We’ve come to expect mind-blowing skills and creative storytelling from Aussie companies, because they need to fill houses every night to pay their airfares. Aussies will sell the van, they’ll sell the house, to fund another show. For the chance to make the money back – it’s a mad gamble.’

Artists who do manage to make it Edinburgh this year should be reassured, Wood continued.

‘British audiences are starved for it, dying to go out to a show,’ he said.

COVID hasn’t changed the circus landscape but it’s certainly impacted it. The challenges of closed borders and closed venues have set the sector back, and it will take time to recover.

At least one of the creatives interviewed for this article has been forced to sell their house to keep their business going. Comfortable arts administrators may not realise how unusual it is for a producer of circus shows to own a house in the first place.

Fez Fa’anana thanked Briefs’ corporate sponsors, Centrelink, at a recent Brisbane show. He wasn’t joking.

Some performers live in campervans between international tours. Large companies like Circa and GOM lose their cast members to work in acrobatics training, fruit-picking, whatever their performers can find, between contracts. A largely mobile workforce, the acrobats are expected to relocate from anywhere, and tour to wherever, and organise their lives around their work.

People’s life savings are being gambled on the performing arts industry being re-established as soon as possible.

If Australian circus performers look passionate about their art, it’s because they are likely to have sacrificed a lot of things to be on that stage.

Mandy Partridge is a Brisbane writer who has done time in London and Perth. Mandy has an MA and a BA from UQ, where she edited 'Semper Floreat'. Partridge wrote for theatre and circus and her first nonfiction book was about acrobatics. 'Long Pork' reached number 1 on Amazon's lists for War and Peace, Political Freedom and Australian and Oceanian Literature. "Blocked Out' and 'Kandy Krush' are racy crime fiction set in Brisbane; 'Wizz Fizz' from this series, launches this month.

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