Seven acrobats in red fly across the stage, prop each other up, climb atop a tower of their kin, play the best game of musical chairs ever, and struggle amongst each other for control over their own destinies. This is the premise of DNA, a new show by Casus whose world premiere takes place in the Spiegeltent on Assembly George Square Gardens at Fringe this August.
Using circus, they explore their own personal stories and the power their backgrounds hold over them. DNA is co-directed by Natano Fa’anana and Jesse Scott (also a cast member) and co-commisioned by Cluster Arts and Back To Ours Festival. Fa’anana has taken a step back from performing in this show to recover from an injury, which interestingly he says, have given him a bit more distance and clarity towards the production.
This personal approach of story-telling is not only a powerful trend in circus today, it is also a hallmark of The 7 Fingers, with Cuisine and Confessions for example. Casus, on the other hand, is adding a new layer with the genetic code of their Australian circus predecessors like Circa—a style of circus which tends to focus on the power of the ensemble and the indefatigable group optimism of Ozzies.
With DNA’s cast of 7, (Jesse Scott, Lachlan McAulay, Sarah McDougall, Kali Retallack, Phoebe Carlson, Johnny Brown, and Mayu Muto) the strength of the show is this unity achieved even when individuals are seemingly in opposition to one another. This ensemble approach takes some finessing to assure that individual voices have the opportunity to be augmented.
The acrobatic shapes this power crew cranks out reveal their high skill level, their comfort level with one another as well as their brilliance at poignant choreography. Where individual stories really shine though is in the expression of personal culture—for example, as one performer (Johnny Brown) struggled to stay true to his indigenous heritage and was pressured by the group to conform. Or when Jesse Scott came to terms with his queerness in a homophobic world. After a sequence of aerial mismatches with women he returned to trapeze for a more tender interaction with his male partner, Lachlan McAulay.
Casus passes the Bechdel circus test with their egalitarian scenes. Females both base and fly as do the males. But the emphasis on their stories and struggles wasn’t always so balanced, with the individual male stories having more developed elements and themes, while the female stories came across as more communal, or as isolated aerial acts full of emotion but with no obvious theme.
One female narrative that came across loud and clear was the solo on chains by Sarah McDougallin in a full on ruffle red and blue dress, superhero style, and heels. Her struggle to appear poised and graceful in a ludicrous costume and impossible conditions was both comical and moving, not to mention impressive, after having justed watched her be a human ladder for her colleagues throughout most of the show, hoisting them up and down off of the trapeze and in and out of two-highs.
As themes emerged, struggles with body image, with self-control, with self-confidence and with faceless, anonymous bullies (in what might have been a metaphor for online life or domestic terrorism) it was the ensemble that always brought home the message with intentional acrobatics, raucous choreography to high powered music, and thoughtful solo acts on trapeze, and beyond. These concepts of individual struggle are difficult to convey via the abstract world of movement alone, but through their interactions with one another, DNA mesmerizes.
All photos courtesy of Casus. Photo credits, Kate Pardy