aspire to inspire

kim kaos: interview, ghenoa gela, circus oz performer

Carl Polke, Ghenoa Gela (centre), Ania Reynolds, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Carl Polke, Ghenoa Gela (centre), Ania Reynolds, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

HOW DO YOU TURN EXPERIENCE AS A DANCER AND COMPETITIVE AIR GUITARIST (GELA WAS QUEENSLAND FINALIST FOR TWO YEARS) INTO A CIRCUS ACT WITH ICONIC AUSTRALIAN COMPANY, CIRCUS OZ? A NEWCOMER TO CIRCUS, GELA IS THE MC IN CIRCUS OZ’S LATEST SHOW, FROM THE GROUND UP. SHE SPENDS A LOT OF TIME ON STAGE—IN DANCE NUMBERS, YARNING WITH THE CROWD, INTRODUCING ACTS AND FIRING UP THE AUDIENCE.

Gela plays down her role as MC. “Even though I am the MC, and the first person on the stage, it’s not hierarchical; I am just a thread throughout the story.”

A Torres Strait Islander from Rockhampton, Gela has a unique skill set. Along with working as an actor and dancer, she has learned cultural protocols and practices of the Torres Strait from her family. She reveals how she made the move from the dance stage and screen into the Big Top:

“It started with a conversation. I was involved in a dance show, Vicki Van Hout’s My Right Foot, Your Right Foot (2007), when Josh Bond—Artistic Associate and Indigenous Programs Coordinator for Circus Oz—approached me, saying I had comic timing, and I laughed it off. While training at NAISDA I had done some clowning and a little comedy, never circus.”

Bond persisted, and in early 2012 Gela joined a select group of performers for Circus Oz’s inaugural Blakrobatics Masterclass. Experienced in dance, comedy, acting, music, each participant had been personally recruited. A circus background wasn’t required, but a solid standing in their chosen field was. The program is a Circus Oz initiative overseen by Bond [see article] and designed to attract talented Indigenous performers to circus, introduce them to the skills required and see what develops.

Gela recalls, “The Blakrobatics workshop was massive! A whole mob of us in a mainstream organisation and we all had such diverse backgrounds. The workshops took place over a week. We did everything—table sliding, tumbling, pole dancing, juggling, diabolo, trapeze, and lyra (aerial ring). We had two specialist trainers. I found the trapeze and the tissu most challenging. I have a whole new respect for circus performers. They do these really difficult things and make them look so easy. You need so much core strength!”

While confessing to a big fear of heights, Gela confides that she is also an “adrenaline junky.” She felt exhilarated by the Masterclass.

At the end of the Masterclass week Gela and Dale Woodbridge (Gamilleroi) were selected for a follow-up program, the Blakrobatics Internship, which involved another 16 weeks of training with the Circus Oz cast and other specialist trainers in The Lab. This was a busy period of experimentation, tightening skills and devising acts for the show. Woodbridge, who has a gymnastics background, worked on his flying trapeze skills and fine-tuned his wicked baton twirling talents.

Carl Polke, Dale Woodbridge, from the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Carl Polke, Dale Woodbridge, from the Ground Up, Circus Oz

The process of developing the show’s content was a new experience for Gela: “In dance, it has a definite structure and you build within those walls to meet what the choreographer specifically wants. Here, at Oz, it’s different. We work very collaboratively, but we have more ownership of our individual pieces. Then you bring all those pieces together. I’ve never had this much freedom of creativity.”

Ghenoa Gela, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

Ghenoa Gela, From the Ground Up, Circus Oz

As MC, Gela performs a delicate balancing act. As the main ‘voice’ in the show she has a strong stage presence balanced by a friendly and personal approach. Gela is a dynamic and articulate guide to cultural and racial politics. But this isn’t a dry lesson—she shares funny, and at times uncomfortable, stories about being a proud Torres Strait Islander woman in contemporary Australia. She seems genuinely surprised that she still has trouble hailing a cab.

“Others might see me as a spokesperson, even when I don’t say anything. I am only myself up on stage. The political material is confronting for some. When I move off stage, some people can’t even look me in the eye. While I don’t feel that pressure of representation, what I can be is someone that the young ones can aspire to. That’s one of my mottos, ‘Aspire to inspire.’ It is about showing possibilities to young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If I can, they can.”

Making her message both playful and memorable, Gela weaves her anecdotes into a riff on the virtues of fruit salad over smoothies. She describes how a fruit salad has lots of different colours, tastes and textures all mixed together into a treat enhanced by each item retaining its identity in the whole. This is done in such mouth-watering detail that Circus Oz might do well to offer fruit salad along with its usual popcorn.

Then, slightly mournfully, Gela relates how a smoothie takes all those different, luscious ingredients and blends them into an undifferentiated, mono-tinted mélange. She drives her point home by pointing to cast and band members, describing their unique abilities while revealing their diverse cultural backgrounds.

“You have to balance the politics, the skills, the music and the characters and aesthetics of the performance. Whatever the content, we all want it to be the best show possible.”

With such a big message, and such a big role, Gela is glad that a circus show is something that allows her to keep developing her character, skills and patter.

“The circus world is very different to the dance world that I’m familiar with. In dance, once you have your moves, that’s usually it for the season. But here, the show is still evolving and being tweaked while it is touring, sometimes even seconds before going on stage. That is definitely testing my abilities under pressure. It also gives me a chance to improve some of my new circus skills.”

Circus Oz’s history of mixing social justice issues with breathtaking skills, comedy and live music has made them one of Australia’s longstanding major performing arts groups. The decision to let Indigenous voices take centrestage, while framing their message with a dynamic and entertaining show, will hopefully open new conversations on what it means to be an Indie Genius Australian!

RealTime issue #111 Oct-Nov 2012 pg. 14

9 October 2012
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