Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Circus 1903 / Circa

Performers in Circus 1903

Yaron Lifschitz
Director of Circa

 Circus 1903 at Canberra Theatre, December 7 – 11, 2016

Circa: Creative Leaps (not faster horses) speech by director Yaron Lifschitz (Currency House Creativity and Business Breakfast, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Wednesday November 30, 2016)

Circus 1903
Produced by The Works Entertainment: Simon Painter (Creative), Tim Lawson (Executive) and Andrew Spencer (Co-Executive)

Director / Co-Creative Producer – Neil Dorward

Scenic Design – Todd Edward Ivins; Lighting – Paul Smith; Costumes – Angela Aaron
Composer / Arranger/ Musical Director – Evan Jolly
Orchestra: The City of Prague Orchestra recorded by Jan Holzner; Band: recorded by James McMillan and mixed by Simon Changer and Ian Wood

Puppets designed by Mervyn Millar and Tracy Waller for Significant Object, UK

Puppeteers: Chris Milford, Henry Maynard, Luke Chadwick-Jones, Nyron Levy, Jessica Spalis, Daniel Fanning

David Williamson – Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (USA)
Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine – Duo Flash (Kiev, Ukraine)
Richard and Richardo Rossi – Hermanos Rossi (Barcelona, Spain)
Lopez Family (Johan, Jonatan and Mariaiose Pontigo) – Los Lopez (Guadalajara, Mexico)
Anny Laplante and Andrei Kalesnikau – Lez Incredibles (Montreal, Canada)
Elena Gatilova – Lucky Moon (Odessa, Ukraine)
Florian Blümmel – The Cycling Cyclone (Stuttgart, Germany)
Senayet Assefa Amara – The Elastic Dislocationist (Ethiopia)
Francois Borie – The Great Gaston (Paris, France)
Artur Ivankovich, Petter Vatermark and AJ Saltalamacchia – The Flying Fins (Helsinki, Finland)
Alfonso Lopez and Maria Jose Dominguez Pontigo – The Perilous Perigos (Mexico)
Mikhail Sozonov – The Sensational Sozonov (Moscow, Russia)

Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 6

What a joy to be so thoroughly entertained by skilful performers of traditional circus acts, led by a magician not only of the usual kind but one who is such an effective actor.

There is an adage never to perform with animals or children.  The puppet elephants, of course, behaved as they should, but the children volunteers from the audience put Ringmaster David Williamson on his mettle.

“Do you believe in magic?”

“No,” said Alex, very firmly.

“Ah, a skeptic!” said Williamson the Magician.  “We need more of them.”

Yet we could all enjoy the way he played magic tricks with two girls and two boys, 5 – 7 years old, who found themselves laughing and as relaxed on stage as the rest of us were, in the auditorium, laughing at their antics.  Williamson is a great family-friendly clown – we all felt part of the family he created.

Not even Alex could have been skeptical about the physical acts where the risks were real.  One of the Los Lopez men came off the tightrope (with no safety net) while trying to land after jumping over Maria who hunkered down, balanced by holding a long cross-pole.  As he fell, he caught onto the tightrope, swung himself up to standing again, acknowledged the audience – and jumped over again, this time with success and to huge applause.

Similarly, either Richard or Richardo Rossi fell from his amazing backward somersault, crashing into either Richardo or Richard.  There was a mat to absorb the impact, but we (and they) were really worried that either Richard or Richardo was injured.

But Richardo and Richard took a minute to recover and went on to complete their act with an impossibly long continuous series of somersaults, once again to huge applause.

These were only two of the many tremendously suspenseful episodes that made this show great theatre.

The success of this show is not just in the gymnastic skills of the performers but in re-creating the atmosphere and positive relationship with the audience, based in the drama of suspense, the acknowledgement of success, and an all-pervading sense of humour – an atmosphere I remember from my childhood in the 1940s.  Childhood memories are never reliable, but I think I may have seen Charlie Cairoli and his famous white-face clarinetist partner, Paul Freedman, at the Blackpool Tower Circus.  I certainly remember much knockabout humour, stunning music and a white face with a conical hat.

In recent years on this blog I’ve reviewed Okham’s Razor: Arc, Memento Mori & Every Action… (UK aerial dances); Circolombia: Urban (city street life in Colombia); Yaron Lifschitz’s Circa work “S” (Brisbane), Flying Fruit Fly Circus (Circus Under My Bed) and Circus Oz (From the Ground Up and But Wait...There’s More).

Lifschitz’s breakfast manifesto began:

Over the past few months the world turned colder and less hospitable.  Brexit, the rise of fundamentalisms both east and west, the election of Trump.  Suddenly things I believe in seem out of key with the times.  Plurality, diversity, compromise, compassion now appear to belong to another, quainter era – a distant empire of decency.  Except that they are needed more than ever now.  There is a pressing urgency to ask more fearless questions, debate more savagely unpleasant truths and explore our own contradictions more robustly....And as an artist, company leader and a festival director, it is beholden on me to respond.

In re-creating the era of the mass audiences for circus in the early 20th Century, rather than making circus shows with modern social themes (From the Ground Up was about discrimination against Indigenous workers in the building trades in Australia, for example), or making what some may call “Art Circus” (such as Okham’s Razor and Circa), does Circus 1903 satisfy any of Lifschitz’s concerns?

In its way I think Circus 1903 does demonstrate plurality and diversity (actually, one of the Flying Fins – AJ Saltalamacchia – began his career in Flying Fruit Fly Circus), and more importantly showed compromise in the adaptability of the performers and the lighting and sound operators towards the audience reactions.  They played to and for the audience, never at the audience.

And even more important was the use of humour and interaction with the audience by David Williamson as Ringmaster.  He set, developed and maintained a warmth of feeling towards all that was going on in the different acts, coming to a climax, of course, when the baby elephant Karanga (Swahili for ‘peanut’) came on stage.  The ‘distant empire’ of decency and compassion was no longer so far away.

Lifschitz also spoke especially, in contrasting the small to medium theatre companies against the Major Performing Arts companies (who were exempted from the recent Australia Council cuts), about how Our reality is we live from hand to mouth, we fly economy, we search for opportunities....Henry Ford said that if he’d asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses.  The heritage arts companies produce marginally faster horses, more expensively each year.  A modest increase in audience numbers here, a bail-out there.

He concludes by showing how important taking risk is, having after some 18 years built Circa into three companies touring Australia and internationally.  Risk, he says, is the oxygen of my world....We put extraordinary young men and women on stage in a way that every performance could be their last.  When things go wrong in circus, people can die.  Our risks are very real – artistically, physically and organisationally.

I am proud to dance with risk on a daily basis.  It is at the core of my art.  In risk is our hope.

In the end, despite the apparent difference between Circus 1903 and a Circa show, I’m sure The Works Entertainment Company appreciates my last quote from Yaron Lifschlitz:

Art may not solve problems but, as Susan Sontag notes, it can wear them down.  Art lifts our species, puts us in touch with our gods, encodes our memories and harnesses the collective imagination in service of our possibilities.  The act of making art is inherently hopeful.

That’s how I found Circus 1903.

David Williamson as Ringmaster
Circus 1903

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Evgeny Ukhanov Performs Griffiths - Introspection for Piano Vol 1


Self-taught Australian composer, Alan Griffiths, can rightly be proud of the debut album of his music.  And he can be proud on two counts: first that the Ukrainian-Australian pianist, Evgeny Ukhanov, has done a very nice job of interpreting the music and, second that the music is very accessible and perfectly suited to the album title, Introspection.

The composition styles vary quite remarkably through the programme.  There are new age styles, pieces that could be for a film soundtrack, others that evoke piano studies and still others that can calm the soul or lead the listener into a flight of fantasy.

Then there are the influences.  Griffiths’ bio notes acknowledge that many great composers over the last 150 years have been his guide.  Still, Griffiths really has developed his own style.  There are the occasional hints of the influences, but he can be confident in calling all of his compositions uniquely his own.  Even the quite strong Rachmaninov stylings in the “Motif and Variations” serve more to underscore the writing than dominate it.

Whilst, on the whole, the works are not overly technically difficult, Ukhanov has taken them and put a great deal of soul into them, turning the notes on the page into truly beautiful and sensitive musical interpretations cleverly nuanced with a tiny tenuto here, a subtle ritardando there, or perhaps a delicate accelerando somewhere else, just to give the music his personal touch and add that extra little bit of personality.

The titles of the works are largely descriptive of their technical nature rather than of the story behind them or their source of inspiration.  There would be some value in giving the titles a little more personality, even if it’s just by way of nicknames, to add to the charm of the music they produce.

If I had one tiny gripe, it is the closeness of the recording.  A close listening (I reviewed the album using a pair of Sennheiser HD 600 headphones) will reveal a subtle thud of the keys hitting the strings particularly in the upper registers.  I would have preferred a slightly more expansive sound to give a better spread and balance across the instrument.  It’s almost as if the piano is “bottled up”, unable to escape.

But others will appreciate the very clearly defined registers of the piano, which, in fact, are nicely and faithfully captured in the recording process.

The presentation of the album is nicely done, with good liner notes about the composer and the artist as well as the “personality” behind the works.

On hearing the first few bars of music on Introspection, the listener might be tempted to think it is one of those albums you can put on and then drift off.  But it’s not long before the listener becomes aware of music and playing that demands just that: listening.

NERVOUS - Australian Dance Party

Concept and direction by Alison Plevey
Music production by Ben Worth
Lighting and technical production by Robbie Gordon
Designed by Anna Trundle
Mt Stromlo Observatory, Yale Colombia Dome
1st - 3rd December 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The selection of the romantic burnt-out Dome at Mt. Stromlo Observatory, with its magnificent valley views enhanced by a spectacular sunset, was an inspired choice by dance-maker, Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party in which to present her latest site-specific work, “Nervous”.

Seated in two rows around the inside perimeter walls of the roofless dome, the audience was able to experience the twilight transition from sunset to starlight as the performance progressed.  

Two imposing concrete structures which once supported giant telescopes provided a striking sculptural setting for the performance which began gently with the four dancers, all costumed in identical stylish white slacks and singlets, topped with nude string mesh overshirts, pacing in different directions around the central performance area.

Add caption

Occasionally they confronted each other with long gazes. As the pace quickens the performers began moving backwards, sometimes circling each other and at other times colliding. In this setting it was easy to image that they represent the universe. Eventually they all collapsed to the floor, heralding the beginning of a beautifully constructed adagio in which the four dancers moved in perfect unison.

An entertaining interlude commenced with Janine Proost desperately self-censoring herself as she attempted to make a statement, brilliantly illustrated the disabling effects of extreme nervousness.

 In her program notes Plevey states “Nervous is about the human state and today’s volatile world …. An interrogation of what makes us nervous”. How she explores this proposition in abstract dance terms makes for a stunning work which was often as puzzling as it was fascinating to watch.

Alison Plevey in "Nervous" 

Superbly performed by Alison Plevey, Gabriel Comerford, Olivia Fyfe and Janine Proost, “Nervous” incorporates a remarkable electronic soundscape by Ben Worth, which set the mood for the various sections. Sometimes it was gentle and lyrical, at others the bass was so loud that it could actually be felt vibrating through the body.

Spectacular laser lighting and projections by Robbie Gordon effectively highlighted the drama of the surroundings, but occasionally left the dancers in the dark, most notably for the final tableau.

However, with the originality of its concept, the uniqueness of its setting, and the excellence of its execution, with “Nervous”, Australian Dance Party confirms its promise of becoming an important new vehicle for contemporary dance in the A.C.T.

                                                             Photos by Lorna Sim

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 2nd December 2016

Doug Anthony All Stars: Near Death Experience.

The Canberra Playhouse Nov 29.

Someone had said they were in fine fettle. Wandered along to the Playhouse to check up on their Near Death Experience.  Sure, Tim Ferguson’s in a wheelchair and Richard Fidler’s off working for what’s left of the ABC and Paul Livingston’s Flacco is replacing him and Paul McDermott is rejoicing in finally being the tallest member of the Doug Anthony All Stars but that’s age and the wheel of time, Of which we were reminded by the odd film clip of the DAAS in much younger days.

The place was pretty well packed with the no-longer-kids of the 80s and the stalls were lit up because there was filming going on. At one stage someone shouted out the name of Café Boom Boom, the theatre café in Narrabundah that used to host the Dougs back in the 1980s but Paul suppressed them swiftly.

The mysterious Flacco introduced the show in what felt like near silence, (although he actually said quite a lot) arranging and rearranging his feet and his direction to the audience. Hysterical how funny something like this, involving precision timing, can be.

Then sardonic Paul came in and then Tim, away with the pixies as ever and even more so now, and the mixture was as comfortingly shocking as we expected. Paul bullied Tim, Tim smiled vaguely, Flacco looked on superciliously and they all made music and mayhem like a pack of fallen angels.

Melancholy, but they were always melancholy.

Near death? Never.

Alanna Maclean

Circus 1903 - Canberra Theatre Centre

Luke Chadwick-Jones and David Williamson (credit David James McCarthy)

Review by John Lombard

A gentle shower of popcorn is an unusual start to a night at the theatre, but it’s the perfect opening to Circus 1903, a highly polished recreation of the old-time Big Top circus that melds a patina of carny hucksterism with the elite performance of the modern circus.

The culprit is Ringmaster Willy Whipsnade (David Williamson), a cynical PT Barnum who is weary from the endless trek of bringing the circus from town to town.  The performance starts with the lights up and Willy spruiking a tray full of (possibly overpriced) snacks to the audience.  But he impatiently just starts to pelt them into the crowd, small comets leaving trails of kernels.

Nothing creates the feel of the Big Top like the smell of popcorn, unless is the crunch when it is underfoot.

Circus 1903 is a nostalgic homage to cheap entertainment, a split personality most obvious in the sideshow gag sequence where a series of deliberately wonky freak acts give way to a genuinely impressive contortionist.  It is also a homage to a simpler kind of circus, where there are no elaborate artistic pretensions, only the raw thrill of humans doing things that humans probably shouldn’t be doing.

The circus offers a full collection of the iconic, classical acts – tightrope walking, tumbling, and my personal favourite, the knife throwing act where the knives are also on fire.  Flavour comes from Whipsnade’s patter – one act is “the greatest solo aerialist of her generation” – puffs that are as cornball as the acts are accomplished.

At times, the acts wobbled, and after the show there was great debate on whether this was deliberately staged to raise tension.  Some of the slips seemed real, and brought home the drama of the performance.  At other times, the reaction of the performer was a little too over-the-top, with muscles elaborately massaged and flexed.  But overall these moments added to the reality of the performances.

One of the great promises of the show was the return of elephants to the circus, minus the elephant cruelty.  This was achieved with some gorgeous puppets, in particular one rambunctious baby elephant who quite deliberately stole the show.  This was a nostalgic, sanitised look back at the classic animal acts, but the movement of the animals was beautiful, evoking the Royal National Theatre’s puppet work in His Dark Materials.

The music chosen to accompany the show was excellent, pounding music as the big-top is set up, ethereal twinkling for moments of wonder, and swashbuckling accompaniment for anything involving sharp objects.  The music worked particularly well with the puppets to create a convincing illusion.

Circus 1903 draws on history, cleans it up and gives us the kind of circus that only ever really existed in the movies, where the slapdash elements (here completely deliberate) only make it more loveable.  Humour, wonder, and genuinely thrilling acts – it may not be in the Big Top, but it perfectly captures the spirit of the Golden Age of the Circus.

At the Canberra Theatre Centre until 11 December.  Tickets at

Monday, December 5, 2016

Shortis and Simpson - Voting Dangerously

Who's in the picture:  L to R, Top to Bottom: "We can make Canberra sing again!"

Australian Labor Party Opposition Leader Bill Shorten: "Who can shorten your attention span?  Billy can!"
Ex-UK before Brexit Prime Minister, David Cameron.
Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Secretary after Brexit.
Australian Minister for Immigration (including - sorry, excluding - refugees) Peter Dutton.
Australian one-time radio talkback broadcaster, founder (April 2016), leader of Derryn Hinch's Justice Party  and now Senator, Derryn Hinch.
Hillary Clinton, majority popular vote winner, US non-President-Elect.
Donald Trump, non-majority popular vote winner but majority weird Electoral College voting system winner, US President Elect.
Australian Conservative - sorry, Liberal - Party current leader, Prime Minister Malcolm (Muddle Headed Wombat) Turnbull.
Even more Australian Conservative - sorry Liberal - Party ex-Leader, backbencher Tony (Mr Rabbot) Abbott.
Moya Simpson and John Shortis
Australian just about Tea-Party Conservative founder and leader of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party and now Senator, Pauline Hanson.


The Year of Voting Dangerously.  Shortis&Simpson at Teatro Vivaldi, ANU Canberra, December 2, 2016.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

The mood of this year’s ‘satirical look’ at political events by John Shortis and Moya Simpson, at the dreadful end of their second decade, is expressed perfectly in their title. 

They were still upbeat playing Stop the Votes, We Want to Get Off on election night in July (“a terrific convivial party atmosphere”, I wrote then).  But after the conservatives (in this upside down country called the Liberal Party) clung on with a one-seat win in the lower house, following June’s Brexit referendum in the Mother Country and now compounded by calling Trumps for the wild card in the poker game for Leader of the Free World, a sense of danger and insecurity made satirical fun into something less convivial and rather more terrifying.

We still laughed a lot, of course (and Vivaldi’s food and wine was as encouraging as ever), but I couldn’t help feeling rather too much like Bottom, whistling.  Shakespeare understood his politics in The Dream.  At least 400 years later we get to vote.  But is that just another whistle in the wind?

Three numbers framed the mood for me. 

I first heard the first, the Pauline Hanson fish-and-chip-shop song, when I reviewed the first Shortis&Simpson show in 1996!  [Shortis and Curleys at the one-time Queanbeyan School of Arts Cafe for the Canberra Times and now at]  

At the time I couldn’t possibly foresee the significance that her One Nation Party would have this year, now with four Senators, considering her collapse in the 1999 Federal election and the break up with David Oldfield forming his One Nation NSW to get himself into that State’s upper house (just for the eight years required to give him an over-the-top parliamentary superannuation pension for the rest of his life). 

Please explain how that song can still be as awfully relevant as if nothing has changed in 20 years, except the names of the ethnic groups she vilifies.

The third was not a song but a beautifully told very funny children’s story of Mr Rabbot and Malcolm the Muddle-Headed Wombat continuing to vie for the leadership of all the animals.  As Malcolm, on his second time around, becomes even more muddle-headed, Mr Rabbot has gathered his friends for his second try – Cory, Eric, and several others – and, the story ends, “You know what rabbots do...!” 

Enough said.  What horror!

The words of my second song, which was given a reprise (before the audience insisted on an encore – of Bob Dylan concluding ironically with The times, they are a’changing) told us in no uncertain terms that though satire can be good fun, sometimes it’s just not possible to laugh.  These are the words recorded in the ABC’s Four Corners interviews with the children still held after three years on Nauru – refugees whose teachers from Save the Children have been removed and told they may be jailed for telling us about our Government’s treatment of people in dire need.

Immediately after watching that program, John Shortis wrote a quiet, almost pretty, but terribly sad song.  Moya sang without pretension the children’s words:

We’re not criminals,
We’re not dangerous.
We’re refugees
So tell us please
We’re still here?

Why indeed?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

CIRCUS 1903 - The Golden Age of Circus

Directed by Neil Dorward. Scenery design by Todd Edward Ivins.
Costumes designed by Angela Aaron. Lighting designed by Paul Smith
Music composed by Evan Jolly.
Presented by Simon Painter and Tim Lawson for the Works Entertainment

Canberra Theatre Centre 1st – 10th December 2016.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Just when you think you’ve seen every possible connotation of circus, along comes a show that blows you out of the water. “Circus 1903” is that sort of show.

This brilliantly realised concept sees 20th century circus re-imagined through 21st century sensibility, utilising clever design which takes full advantage of modern theatrical technology to conjure up an exciting and romantic circus world which probably never existed, but is evocative enough to awaken memories of the wonders of that first visit to a circus.

Ringmaster, Willy Whipsnade (wondrously portrayed by avuncular magician David Williamson) arrives before the circus and within minutes has every kid in the audience, young and old, wide -eyed and under his spell. He dispenses popcorn and comedic corn in equal quantities, like some lovable, wicked uncle on a mission to enthral everyone with the magic of circus.

And just as magically as he’s promised the circus arrives in a flurry of activity with muscular roustabouts and gaudily costumed circus dwellers setting up the big top and side-shows in a series of cleverly choreographed sequences which showcase a succession of brilliant specialty acts from around the world.

The first act concludes spectacularly with the raising of big top, and the whole ensemble transforming astonishingly into colourfully costumed circus performers, then recommencing after interval with a grand parade, with Whipsnade, now in full ringmaster regalia, expounding the virtues of each act from his repertoire of delightful hyperbole.

All of the brilliant speciality acts harken back to traditional circus skills which may have been on show in 1903, but in this show, refined and developed to a level of skill and ingenuity surely unimaginable in 1903. High wire walkers and a knife thrower from Mexico, acrobats from Spain, a speed juggler from France, a truly amazing contortionist from Ethiopia, a stunning aerialist from the Ukraine, and an unbelievable trapeze duo from Canada, are just some of the acts which amaze and dazzle.

But as amazing as these acts are, it is the presentation surrounding them, together with the stunning recorded soundtrack that references circuses of yesteryear that lifts this show into a class of its own.

However, for the kids in the audience, it’s the animals they’ll remember most vividly. Not real ones, but the mighty puppet elephant which enters magically through the mist, or the lovable baby elephant that scampers around the stage, or perhaps Whipsnade’s hilariously unco-operative racoon.

While cleverly tapping into that rich vein of nostalgia most adults cherish of their first circus experience, “Circus 1903” lives up to its pre-publicity in every way, providing an extraordinarily charming and spectacular entertainment for the whole family.

Following its world premiere season in Canberra  “Circus 1903” will play the Sydney Opera House from 18th to 29th January , then the Regent Theatre in Melbourne from 3rd to12th February, before moving on to an extensive tour of North America. Catch it while you can.


This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.