Warning: seeing a performance by Brisbane circus company Circa may cause feelings of inadequacy, fear and awe.
Take their 2019 show Humans, where Circa artistic director Yaron Lifschitz and his ensemble asked: “How much can we take as humans? How much weight can we carry? Who can we trust to support our load?”
The acrobats’ bodies provided many contradictory and humorous answers — whether they were tumbling at the last possible moment, ascending to great heights balanced only on each other’s heads, or simply making fantastical, unexpected shapes with their bodies.
The performers were pushing the limits of what human bodies and circus could do; instead of elaborate costumes, apparatus and sets, this is something closer to contemporary dance.
And it is playful, probing work like this that has seen Circa grow from a tiny, edgy, Brisbane circus troupe to become one of Australia’s major performing arts companies, with a hefty reputation on the global stage.
The slightly wayward sibling
Circa first emerged as a collective in 1987, with members coming from Brisbane’s Street Arts Community Theatre Company and The Popular Theatre Troupe.
Co-founded by Derek Ives and Antonella Casella, it was then known as Rock N Roll Circus.
Lifschitz told Michael Cathcart on The Stage Show that Rock N Roll Circus saw itself as “the slightly wayward, tougher sibling to Circus Oz — it was smaller, grittier, a bit more glamorous, and edgier”.
“It was a pioneering company, it brought some chaotic energy into Australian circus — or helped it [get there],” says Lifschitz.
While Rock N Roll Circus was making its name with works like Body Slam (1992), Circus Under the Tin Top (1993) and The Dark (1995), Lifschitz was cutting his teeth as an emerging theatre director.
“[After graduating NIDA in 1991] I found myself directing plays that stank … what came out on stage was just excruciatingly boring,” he recalls.
“[But] I knew that working in a form of pre-existing, limited [performance] vocabulary was probably where I’d find my strength.”
While Lifschitz had experience in leadership, having founded the Australian Museum’s Theatre Unit, he had zero circus experience before taking on the role of Rock N Roll Circus’s artistic director in 1999.
“For some reason that is only known to them, they [Rock N Roll Circus] chose me — I think because I was the least threatening and was the easiest [person] to push around.”
By the time Lifschitz arrived at Rock N Roll Circus, many of the original collective members had departed.
“I knew nothing about circus and maybe that was a good thing,” he says, with the benefit of hindsight.
By 2003, the company was making groundbreaking work (including, that year, the shows Anyway I’m Not Alone and Naked) — but still failing to find an audience.
“We spent a long time doing shows that people hated … but we knew there was some spark, something very authentic and fresh [in our work],” says Lifschitz.
In 2004, the company renamed itself Circa, and premiered their three-person show The Space Between — but it wasn’t until the following year that they had a breakthrough, when Lifschitz recast that show with performers David Carberry, Darcy Grant and Chelsea McGuffin.
These acrobats would all go on to have successful careers as creators and directors in their own right (including at Company 2, which McGuffin created, and at Gravity & Other Myths).
“So I happened to have a room full of very creative and skillful people, and they did extraordinary work,” Lifschitz says…
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