NICA's first batch

Mary Ann Robinson

The National Institute for Circus Arts (NICA) was formally established in Melbourne in 2000, building on the strength and vitality of Australian circus and physical theatre work. So now kids, you can run away and join the circus, but Mum and Dad will be happy because you’re getting a formal education. Never mind the fact that you spend all day hanging on ropes or balancing tables on your feet. This year, NICA’s first graduating students come leaping and swinging into the public eye with On Edge—like at a graduation, they even have funny hats.

The BMW Edge at Federation Square bears up well. The 3 dimensional exploded geometry of the building has an uncanny resemblance to a circus rig. Its metal angles echo the larger architectural statement of the building itself, and have some of the same functions—these are structures for people to swing from, crawl over and occupy in multiple ways.

Eighteen young performers saunter into the space, an ensemble of clowns—low key, dressed in identical long, red coats. Performers emerge from this red collective to showcase their skills as individuals and groups—with hoops, tissue, balances, trapeze, cloud swing, Chinese poles, juggling—and then return to the ensemble. There is a feeling of support, of people who’ve worked together for years, who know each other’s sweaty armpits intimately.

Much individual virtuosity is evident on stage, with a respectable amount of nerve wracking anxiety and exuberant energy. Many performers demonstrate the fit and focused presence of hardened circus professionals. This toughness and confidence is frequently evident in the performers’ backgrounds in gymnastics and martial arts. Yet skills without art are simply the Olympic Games—the trick with this form is to do something more.

On Edge is more interesting than a showcase for a series of neat tricks. Gail Kelly (who has directed youth companies as well as Circus Oz and The Party Line) and Celia White (a performer with Legs on the Wall, The Party Line, and now directing) bring to the work a hint of their experience of Club Swing, allowing a natural overlap between youth, physicality, sexuality, thrills and loud music. It all reflects the crossover of circus in Australia into club scenes—and club scenes back into circus.

Further links emerge in Lynton Carr’s phenomenal turntable work. If inner city club/circus could talk, this is how it would sound. Carr’s high energy musical shifts and scratching work feed into the live performance. It’s sometimes hard to know who to watch in this dialogue between bodies and sound. Carr throws in everything—from the flashy brilliance of Carmen, through 1950s schmaltz and into the mindless doof doof bass rhythms of house—scratched together in a live interaction with the energy of what is happening on stage.

Bad news, Mum and Dad. The kids won’t be home for a while.

On Edge, director Gail Kelly, assistant director Celia White, lighting George Kulikovskis, costumes Jill Johanson, turntable composition Lynton Carr, riggers Derek Ives, Finton Mahony, producer Andrew Bleby, National Institute of Circus Arts; BMW Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne, April 10-27

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 47

© Mary Ann Robinson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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