Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Canberra Circus Festival 2023


Canberra Circus Festival 2023, April 18th – 23rd,

at The May Wirth Big Top on Chifley Community Oval & Warehouse Circus, Maclaurin Cres, Chifley,  9.30am – 9.30pm each day.

Details at

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Tuesday April 18



I begin at the Festival’s Opening Night with very good news.  

Warehouse executive director Aleshia Johnson explained that it takes up to 18 months to organise a circus festival which is as much a training week for Canberra’s young performers as an entertainment week for the general public, bringing in a wide range of professional modern circus teams from around the world.

Aleshia credits her artistic director Tom Davis as the driving force who established the Canberra Circus Festival last year and again this year, in the hope for a long-term future.  The ACT Minister for the Arts, Tara Cheyne, who opened the Festival, has made it clear that the government funding which helped make it happen this time, will be available in future.

So Warehouse Youth Circus, with its 33-year history of providing training and performance experience, now plans a permanent, but biannual, Canberra Circus Festival, from 2025, after a pause to recover next year with more time to plan and organise.

I thought perhaps the Great Big Circus Gala(h) night might be renamed The Great Big Circus Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo night as I watched the first group of young women performers doing the same kind of fantastic aerial gymnastics as the birds love to do.  Of course, they didn’t leave the floor covered with broken bits – and they did things, while suspended, like scaringly balancing on top of each other, which I haven’t seen the cockies do.

The purpose of the opening evening was to show the range of circus work covered by the festival.  Seven youth performances, groups and individuals, showed not just the circus skills, but how modern circus is educational as well as entertaining.

I saw each piece as representing important thoughts about our way of life.  The larger group items became metaphors about the individual working to be a reliable and competent member of a social group in creating something of value.  The pair and solo items, of course, have the same effect but focus on individuality and originality of skills.

I found myself coming up with a word or two for each item: hanging about; gymnastic communication; illuminated juggling; throwing themselves around; comic stillness; body image not a problem; and, from the older group’s “Sunny”, the key word was trust.

An essential element that I saw in these items – and from among the audience who included a large proportion of young people and parents involved in the circus community – is how young women gain self-confidence and a powerful sense of self-worth in their involvement in circus.  This was clear not only from achieving the physical skills but from their participation as equals in planning and designing performances.

The Gala(h) night then showed two of today’s established performers, alumni from previous training at Warehouse, Jack Wild and Jake Silvestro.  As the MC, Master Showman Shep Huntly put it, they “validated their life choices”.

Two fiery professional pieces were presented to end the evening: a Sideshow performance with angle grinder by Canberran Sian Brigid, and juggling with flaming torches by Americans Maya McCoy & Brent McCoy of Her Majesty’s Secret Circus “with a licence to thrill”.  In a sense you could say the Great Big Circus Gala(h) night was a taster from go to wow of the Canberra Circus Festival shows and training workshops over the rest of this week.

When Warehouse Circus began, around 1990, as a drama teacher I was pleased to see them grow from the history of modern circus (the circus where the humans are the only animals) which had such strong beginnings, largely in Melbourne.  

My elder brother had made me a pair of stilts, so I was hooked from the age of eight, but never had the opportunity for proper training.  But when I started Canberra’s first high school Drama (not reading plays in English) classes at Ginninderra High in 1974, Year 8 was soon engaged in devising and performing circus to take to the local Holt Primary.  Only at floor level, and largely rope whirling and clowning.  Neither school exists now, but not through any fault of mine, I trust.

At that same time “Circus Oz was the amalgamation of two already well-known groups: the New Ensemble Circus, a continuation of the New Circus, established in Adelaide in 1973; and the Soapbox Circus, a roadshow set up by the Australian Performing Group in 1976.”

Then “The Flying Fruit Fly Circus was one of the productions of the Murray River Performing Group, initially an ensemble of nine artists, set up mostly by graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts Drama School. The group began full-time operations in 1979, the International Year of the Child.” 

And, as Amy Martin reported in The Canberra Times (April 18, 2023) about Suitcase Circus, one of the companies in the Festival, "the majority of performers have a Bachelor of Circus Arts".

And so the history goes.  Warehouse Circus and Canberra Circus Festival are in the place where they belong.  Enjoy, and appreciate.