Urban by CIRCOLOMBIA. Presented by Sydney Festival in association with Arts Projects Australia. Artistic Director, Felicity Simpson; directed by Mark Storer; original theatre director, Jean-Yves Penafiel; Company Captain, José Henry Caycedo Cassierra. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 15-27, 2013.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
If you think of Circus Oz as quintessentially Australian (see my review of From the Ground Up in Canberra Critics’ Circle, October 5, 2012), then you can see Circolombia as playing a similar role for Colombia. The origin of the company lies in the Foundation Circo Para Todos, founded by Felicity Simpson in Cali, Colombia in 1995; the establishment of a professional circus school specifically dedicated to underprivileged children; and its development into Circolombia producing shows and providing jobs for the graduates of Circo Para Todos – and spreading Columbian culture around the globe.
I contrasted From the Ground Up against the Cirque du Soleil as “no-bullshit Australian culture, which grabs our audience by the throat and makes us cheer the daredevils on, laugh, and be made aware of social justice all at once. This is the art of Circus Oz”. The same can be said of Circolombia in Urban. Just change the culture.
Cali is a city very unlike Melbourne, and Colombia quite unlike Australia. Before Urban gets the exciting daredevil circus action under way, while we wait for rather too many latecomers to be settled in their seats, a continuous video is shown taken through the back window of a bus on its route around Cali. At a stop, a young boy – maybe 8 or 9 – jumps up on the rear bumper and hangs onto a rope, obviously permanently attached for people to travel on the outside. Looking in, he notices the camera on the inside looking out, giving us the steady gaze of the already worldly-wise, rather than the cheeky grin of a child that we might expect.
The action begins with a white figure lying dormant in a dim spotlight, brought to life in stages by puffs of breath from a dark mysterious figure who disappears in the gloom. The silvery white figure rises to find herself alone, leaving the stage apparently in search of something. There is a pause, in blackout, then a great explosion of a dozen men, of racial backgrounds from almost effete whites in street-wise hip-hop gear, as you might see in New York, through to tall startlingly muscular Afro-Americans. And they dance – do they ever dance! – to the ever-present reggae rhythm of South American hip-hop, in Spanish rhyme, with all the athleticism of that urban counter-culture. Circus Oz looks rather sedate in comparison!
The men’s circus work was focussed on floor and tightrope tumbling and somersaulting, often up to heights where I was afraid they would hit the lighting rig, while the two women concentrated on aerial work. I can’t tell from the program which of Diana Valentina Ramirez Londono and Julia Alejandra Sanchez Aja did which solo, but one was original, beautiful and scary on a high suspended ring and the other equally so on a slack rope trapeze which swung over the audience. At least she was attached to a safety harness, but there was nothing to save the ring performer if she had come off many metres above the stage.
As in Circus Oz, where Ghenoa Gela, a Torres Strait Islander from Rockhampton, told some of his story as an Indigenous person in Australia, we were told the story of poverty in Columbia by one of the men, whose Spanish name passed me by too quickly, but whose story was displayed in English on the screen, which was also used throughout the show as a backdrop. Mind you, I didn’t often notice what was on the screen when people were flying through space, always with the threat of an injurious landing.
In the end, for me, Urban works because the danger and risk inherent in the circus represented the danger and risks that these performers grew up with in Cali, Colombia. Here is where Urban diverged from Circus Oz. From the Ground Up was an artistic metaphor with a highly positive view of multicultural Australian life. I’m sure there must be aspects of Colombian culture which could be viewed in this light. But Urban is about the underbelly of city life – which could also be shown about Melbourne, of course – and the endemic poverty out of which has grown the success, at least for these performers, of creating a show, as Felicity Simpson describes it, “at the forefront of a revolutionary new style of circus”.
And, to conclude, watch for the man (again whose name I can’t distinguish from the program) who gyrates as the hub of a large hoop, becoming a spinning and rolling human wheel. This scene, his solo piece in the dance of life, almost in darkness as if the twirling of his body is an existential force, was not only powerful dramatically, but was so much more significant artistically than the equivalent physical exercise I have seen in Cirque du Soleil.