But Wait…There’s More

The Entertainment Quarter, January 2


The Circus Oz ensemble. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Circus Oz’s latest show But Wait….There’s More arrives in Sydney at the end of a two-year tour. It’s clearly had a few changes along the way but is in good shape.

There are plenty of strong, engaging personalities among the company but they work together as a tight ensemble. As well as performing in various acts, they all play instruments to bolster the two musicians in the band and pitch in to help with scene changes so that things keep rocking along.

Directed by Mike Finch – his final production as artistic director of the company, a role he’s held since 1997 – the show supposedly has an underpinning theme about “infobesity” and consumerism. There are various references ranging from a comic character staggering under a tower of boxed purchases to an acrobatic routine with the performers in barcode-like costumes. But overall you’d be hard pressed to recognise a consistent theme if you didn’t already know about it.

No matter. The show has that lovely raw honesty and irreverent sense of fun that characterises Circus Oz. It looks good too with impressive costuming by Laurel Frank and lighting by Paul Jackson.

Dale Woodbridge-Brown is very funny as the ringmaster introducing himself as a triple threat – gay, indigenous, adopted. He is quick with the one-liners, strikes some wonderfully tongue-in-cheek poses in his fetching red jacket, shorts and sock suspenders, and is an acrobat to boot in a hoop diving routine (with Sharon Gruenert and Nathan Kell) through a TV-like rectangle.


Kyle Raftery and April Dawson in their unicycle adagio. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Real-life partners Kyle Raftery and April Dawson perform a beguiling balancing routine on a unicycle (to a beautiful piece of music for piano and banjo), Olivia Porter’s juggling routine with white balls has a refreshing edginess to it, Matt Wilson’s balancing act on children’s chairs has an added twist with the chairs perched precariously on a pepper grinder, plastic skull, glass bottle and statue of the Eiffel Tower, while the exuberant flying trapeze act mixes impressive feats with slapstick comedy.

So often, the clowns aren’t funny in circus shows. Here, Wilson (a circus veteran of 25 years) and Porter are a genuinely funny double act using plenty of old-style slapstick – she as a timid, put-upon character, and he as a strong, chipper chappie.

A routine featuring the live performance of the “Lion Song” with children from the audience going up on stage to be lions sits rather oddly. It’s obviously a reference to circuses from days past when animals were paraded but for me anyway it was one of a couple of flat spots.

Overall, however, But Wait…There’s More is one of the most entertaining Circus Oz shows I’ve seen for a while with a warmth and generosity of spirit that is very endearing.

But Wait….There’s More plays in the Big Top in The Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park until January 24. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

Le Noir

Lyric Theatre, March 20

The cast of Le Noir. Photo: supplied

The cast of Le Noir. Photo: supplied

Le Noir is billed as “the dark side of cirque”. It certainly goes all out with its sexy costuming and lascivious posing by the cast between routines but essentially it offers a fairly traditional series of breath-taking, top-notch circus acts.

Produced by Tim Lawson and Simon Painter, and directed and choreographed by Neil Dorward, Le Noir doesn’t bother with a quasi-narrative theme or a spectacular set like Cirque du Soleil nor does it have the whacky humour of La Soirée. (The clown/Emcee Salvador Salangsang disappearing inside a balloon is the closest it gets, and the funniest of his routines). Instead it puts the focus on some seriously talented performers doing extraordinary things to pulsing music and dramatic lighting.

The Wheel of Death. Photo: supplied

The Wheel of Death. Photo: supplied

The Lyric Theatre has been reconfigured somewhat so that a couple of the most risky acts – the Wheel of Death and an amazing duo trapeze with a twist, in which a man replaces the trapeze bar – are performed at the front of the stalls. And if you want to get really close you can sit on stage at little tables or in seating banks that surround the action.

The show unfolds in colour-coded sections with white, red and then black costuming (designed by Angela Aaron). It begins gently with beautiful, graceful aerial hoop (Elena Gatilova), hand balance (Anna Ostepenko) and duo silk (Dasha Shelest and Vadym Pankevych) routines.

Valeri Tsvetkov and Yani Stoyanov Photo: supplied

Valeri Tsvetkov and Yani Stoyanov Photo: supplied

Things rev up in the red section with breakneck, spinning roller-skating (Queenslander Jessica Ritchie and Jeronimo Ernesto) and a strongman act by two hunky musclemen (Valeri Tsvetkov and Yani Stoyanov), who were impressive, even though their most difficult balance eluded them at the performance I saw.

The most dangerous acts happen in the final black section including the trapeze (Marie-Christine Fournier and Louis-David Simoneau), which closes the first act, the Rolla Bolla (Gediminas Pavlovicius) and the daredevil Wheel of Death.

Gediminas Pavlovicius performs the Rolla Bolla. Photo: supplied

Gediminas Pavlovicius performs the Rolla Bolla. Photo: supplied

If my memory serves me right, the massive, spinning Wheel of Death structure with two large hoops at either end, in which and – even more terrifyingly on which – the two men (Carlos Macias and Angelo Rodriguez) perform isn’t as large as the one we saw in Le Grand Cirque – Adrenaline in 2011. No matter. It makes for a show-stopping finale, which you watch with your heart in your mouth.

It does feel as if there is one acrobatic duo too many, when something very different would add more variety. But that’s a minor quibble in a highly entertaining show that frequently has you on the edge of your seat.

Le Noir plays at the Lyric Theatre until April 4. Bookings: Ticketmaster

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 22

Club Swizzle

The Studio, Sydney Opera House, January 21

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Valerie Murzak in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

As you enter the Sydney Opera House Studio for Club Swizzle, the place is abuzz. People are sitting drinking at a large central, rather elegant bar (which serves pretty expensive drinks though there’s a cheaper bar at the back of the room), friendly waiters and ushers are whizzing around, and entertainer Murray Hill is moving through the crowd chatting.

Then in a snappy piece of choreography the bar is quickly transformed into a performance space, getting the show off to a terrific start.

The concept (by Brett Haylock) of a cabaret-vaudeville show set in a late-night bar is fabulous, as is the production’s set-up. The show itself feels a little undercooked but it’s early days and is bound to develop.

Club Swizzle has more of an old-fashioned vaudeville vibe than its cheekier predecessors La Clique and La Soirée.

Hill, a New York drag king, acts as the MC. His tagline is “the man who puts the ‘king’ back in f#*king funny”. I didn’t actually find him particularly funny but he’s a warm presence with a nice, easy rapport with the audience.

The line-up also includes Movin’ Melvin Brown, an old-school vaudevillian from America who croons and tap dances, Russian circus artist Valerie Murzak who does sexy contortion and balancing on a giant mirror ball and aerial silks, Finnish dancer Anna de Carvalho who performs on a swinging aerial pole, and Australian ‘kamikaze’ diva Meow Meow who sings three numbers. (Ali McGregor replaces Meow Meow in February).

The backbone of the show though are The Swizzle Boys, four acrobats (Tom Flanagan, Joren Dawson, Daniel Catlow and Ben Lewis) who do the lion’s share of the performing.

Dressed as waiters, they certainly work hard for their money, performing numerous acts (balancing, Chinese pole, ropes, teeterboard, hoop diving) with oodles of exuberant enthusiasm, often with drinks in hand. The house band, Mikey and the Nightcaps, are also hot and add to the pumping vibe.

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Swizzle Boys prepare to launch off in Club Swizzle. Photo: Prudence Upton

Club Swizzle could do with a bit more variety – entertaining though they are, The Swizzle Boys are rather too ubiquitous – and a little more originality among some of the acts. There have been so many shows of this ilk (La Clique, La Soirée, Empire, Limbo to name just a few) in recent years that there’s little here we haven’t seen before.

I also missed the whacky, screamingly funny humour of acts like Captain Frodo squeezing himself through a tennis racquet or oddball comedy-magician Carl-Einar Hackner from La Clique/La Soirée.

It was an audience participation routine when two people are pulled from the crowd to do a pole dance-off that brought the house down on opening night, with Sunrise producer Michael Pell and The Voice contestant Lionel Cole hilariously giving it their all.

As Haylock has noted in interviews, a late-night bar is the natural, anarchic habitat for a various colourful characters. As it stands, a few more eccentric personalities and a bit more of a sense of chaos would give Club Swizzle more zing. But it’s still a lot of fun and got a huge response from the audience.

Club Swizzle plays at the Sydney Opera House until March 15

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

A Simple Space

The Aurora, Festival Village, Hyde Park North, January 13

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

Flying high in A Simple Space. Photo: Prudence Upton

The Sydney Festival has once again created a lively hub at Hyde Park North with its Festival Village set-up, which has been expanded this year to accommodate the crowds.

There are two Spiegeltents in place, with The Aurora home to two circus shows – A Simple Space and LIMBO – running through the Festival.

LIMBO is back after a sellout season at last year’s Festival. It didn’t feel quite so tightly paced on opening night as it did in 2014 but it’s still a terrific, seductive show (see my review from last year).

A Simple Space by Adelaide-based company Gravity & Other Myths is a much more raw but thoroughly charming show. It features a company of seven acrobats – five men (Triton Tunis-Mitchell, Lachlan Binns, Martin Schreiber, Jacob Randell, Daniel Liddiard) and two women (Jascha Boyce and Rhiannon Cave-Walker) – along with a musician (Elliot Zoerner) who provides a driving percussion score and, at one point, steps into the limelight to become a human drum machine.

In terms of aesthetic, A Simple Space is certainly true to its title. It’s circus at the other end of the spectrum from the slick, mega-produced spectacle of Cirque du Soleil. There’s no set, minimal props and basic costuming (lads in jeans and T-shirts, ladies in white shorts and black tops). It’s a decidedly glitz-free zone.

Sitting at such close quarters, we see the sweat and straining muscles, we hear the hard breathing, which all adds to the enjoyable homespun feel.

The vibe is rough-and-ready playful; the performers seem to be having as much fun as we are. They begin with a line-up along the back of the stage – to which they revert at the end of each act.

The show opens with something akin to a drama trust exercise in which they all move around the stage, yelling “falling” as one of them drops and is caught just before crashing – with a comic moment to cap it off.

There are all kinds of impressive balancing acts along with a very funny strip-skipping routine, balloon-moulding, a strong-woman act in which the two ladies each lift a man from the audience to see who can hold them up the longest, and a breath-holding contest.

One of the men solves a Rubik’s Cube while standing on his head. (Someone should get him to duet with Hilary Cole, who solves a Rubik’s Cube while singing in her cabaret show O.C. Diva).

The climax is a routine where the men toss the two women around, throwing them skywards while holding their hands and feet as if airing a blanket, and using them like human skipping ropes.

Overall, it does feel as if  A Simple Space has one or two balancing acts too many (skillful though they are) but even so it’s a really engaging show.

A Simple Space plays in The Aurora as part of Sydney Festival until January 25


The Grand Chapiteau, Entertainment Quarter, October 28

The Crystal Man. Photo: OSA Images, costume by Kym Barrett

The Crystal Man. Photo: OSA Images, costume by Kym Barrett

A regular visitor to our shores since 1999, Canada’s Cirque du Soleil has garnered a reputation for presenting awesomely skilled performers in super-slick productions that look spectacular but feel a bit soulless.

For Totem the company enlisted renowned Canadian theatrical innovator Robert Lepage as writer and director.

One of 19 Cirque du Soleil shows currently playing globally, Totem fits clearly into the company’s body of work, with all its trademark characteristics, but Lepage has managed to add some nice human touches to the show.

A fixed trapeze act by Guilhem Cauchois and Sarah Tessier becomes a delightful mid-air flirtation, for example. A routine on rings is given a humourous, beach twist by having competing, buffed male poseurs in bathers and sunnies being outshone by a bikini-clad woman.

Billed as a journey through human evolution, Totem begins with The Crystal Man descending from the pinnacle of the Big Top like a human mirror ball or glittering Spiderman “to spark life on earth” apparently. In a costume encrusted with 4,500 reflective pieces, it’s a dazzling opening.

Totem then travels across time from the swamp, where acrobats in amphibian costumes swing on a skeletal carapace, to cosmonauts in glow-in-the-dark Lycra fixing their gaze on Outer space.

Russian Bars. Photo: OSA Images. Costumes by Kym Barrett

Russian Bars. Photo: OSA Images. Costumes by Kym Barrett

Along the way we encounter Native American hoop dancing by Eric Hernandez, a Darwin-like scientist spinning illuminated balls like orbiting planets around a giant transparent funnel, and a cute visual evocation of the ascent of man. But the evolutionary theme feels rather ad hoc, with some of the explanations in the program decidedly far-fetched.

The performance skills are amazing, however, and the show is beautifully staged, with shimmering projections and stunning costumes (designed by Australian Kym Barrett).

Highlights include five young Chinese women (Bai Xiangjie, Hao Yuting, He Xuedi, Wu Yurong and Yang Jie) on towering unicycles kicking bowls into the air and catching them on their heads and on each other’s. The foot juggling Crystal Ladies, identical twins Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova from Belarus who spin mats on their hands and feet, also dazzle.

As is often the case with Cirque du Soleil shows the clowns aren’t terribly funny though and the music has a wishy-washy ambient feel.

With several of the standout acts in the first half of the show, the second half is a slower burn but Totem ends on a high with the Russian Bars act in which acrobats bounce from springy planks to tumble through the air: a real cracker.

So, no great surprises if you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before but still a highly entertaining show – which it would want to be for the ticket prices, which range from $59 to $345.

Totem is at the Entertainment Quarter until January 4. Bookings: wwww.cirquedusoleil.com It then plays in Melbourne from January 21, Brisbane from April 10, Adelaide from June 11 and Perth from July 31


Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, Sydney

January 9

Heather Holliday in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

Heather Holliday in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

Right now, Sydney resembles a three-ring circus – in the nicest possible way – with audiences very happy to “roll up, roll up” to around a dozen shows that fall under the circus banner, all happily strutting their stuff in venues around town.

Most high profile are the sexed-up circus-cabaret-burlesque cocktails, which Sydneysiders just can’t seem to get enough of. The three biggies are Spiegelworld’s Empire, which is playing in a Spiegeltent at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park; La Soirée in the Studio at the Sydney Opera House; and LIMBO, the main house show in the Sydney Festival’s Spiegeltent. (The Festival is also presenting a number of smaller shows in the more intimate Circus Ronaldo Tent).

They’re all terrific in their own way but for my money LIMBO is in a class of its own.

Rather than just consisting of one different trick or act after another, LIMBO creates its own enthralling netherworld. Fierce, highly theatrical, full of joie de vivre and sexy without trying, it has a coherent aesthetic, style and sense of drama, having been created by an ensemble from the ground up.

It is produced by Strut & Fret (the Australian company behind last year’s Sydney Festival show Cantina) in association with Edinburgh’s Underbelly Productions and London’s Southbank Centre.

Directed by Australian Scott Maidment and featuring a supremely skilled, versatile, international cast, LIMBO combines staggering circus acts (given a fresh spin) with some sensational dance routines and little linking vignettes.

It’s all tightly choreographed to an eclectic score played live by a funky band led by New Yorker Sxip Shirey, with knowing winks and smiles from the physical performers.

A contorted Phillip Tigris. Photo: Prudence Upton

A contorted Phillip Tigris. Photo: Prudence Upton

Acts include astonishing contortion by the suited Phillip Tigris, delicate Chinese pole by Mikael Bres complete with a floating feather, unbelievable balances by Danik Abishev, who hops on one hand along a series of poles, eye-popping sword-swallowing and fire eating by Heather Holliday, and aerial hoop by Evelyne Allard.

Dancer/choreographer Hilton Denis (So You Think You Can Dance Australia) taps up a storm and is one of a trio with Bres and Abishev in a surprisingly beautiful sway pole act over the audience’s heads that elicits gasps as they narrowly miss each other, while collecting glasses and programs from the audience as they swoop past.

Dramatically lit by Philip Gladwell with sexy Weimar-esque costumes by Zoe Rouse, LIMBO is an entrancing, exhilarating, rollercoaster ride. I laughed, I marveled, I sat opened mouthed and I thrilled to the theatricality of it all. Highly recommended.

LIMBO plays in the Spiegeltent in the Festival Village, Hyde Park until January 26. Bookings: http://www.sydneyfestival.org.au or 1300 856 876

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 12

Circus Oz: Cranked Up

Big Top, Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour, January 2

Mason West does the rola bola. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Mason West does the rola bola. Photo: Rob Blackburn

Celebrating its 35th anniversary, Circus Oz is a cherished part of Australia’s cultural landscape, known for its genial irreverence as well as its community and social justice projects.

The cast of its latest show Cranked Up includes two indigenous performers –Mark Sheppard as the cowboy MC and acrobat Dale Woodbridge – who went through its BLAKflip pathway program, for example: a terrific initiative.

As for the show itself, Cranked Up is fun but patchy. Inspired by 1930s black and white photos of a construction site, it has an industrial aesthetic, with a large steel girder used in various acts and props including a wheelbarrow and large tools. However, as a theme it isn’t developed as much as it could be dramatically.

A lot of the old faithful acts are there – seven balancing on a bicycle, teeterboard, juggling – and some of them could do with a surprising new twist. Not many have you gasping. It may have been opening night nerves but there were also quite a few drops and spills, while some of the dialogue was lost in the melée. Still, there is much to enjoy.

Highlights include Mason West’s one-arm balance on top of a swaying pole, sticking out of a piano – one of the few acts, which has you hardly daring to look. He also does a great rola bola, balancing on five wobbling cylinders. Bec Matthews drumming in a kind of swinging, drum-kit wrecking ball as acrobats tumble beneath is also spectacular and different.

Woodbridge is very funny as a comic poseur with mullet and is a strong dancer and acrobat, while Jez Davies is exuberant as inept magician Magic Hammond. There’s some nifty foot juggling from Hazel Bock. The lithe Stevee Mills is literally flung around, as well as doing trapeze and tightrope. And how great to see strongwoman Spenser Inwood catching on the trapeze and balancing a bloke on her shoulders. As usual, the live band rocks, with several of the cast doubling as musicians. But for all the highlights there are also dull spots and the show feels a little overlong.

The rough-and-ready quality is one of Circus Oz’s trademark charms but despite the engaging energy of its individual performers, Cranked Up feels a bit too rough and ready at times and needs to be a fair bit slicker to match Circus Oz’s best shows. That said, it’s still a fun family outing with children all over the tent looking rapt.

Cranked Up runs in the Big Top at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour until January 27. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 5

Fairland Ferguson interview

After a near-fatal fall from a cliff ten years ago you might think Fairland Ferguson would play it safe; instead she is now a trick rider in Cavalia, the spectacular show celebrating the bond between horse and human, created by Normand Latourelle, one of the co-founders of Cirque du Soleil.

Fairland Ferguson leads the Roman riding in Cavalia

Fairland Ferguson leads the Roman riding in Cavalia

Fairland Ferguson was being a bit of a daredevil when on August 3, 2003 she tried to jump from the top of a 21-metre rocky cliff into the water below.

“There’s a big lake called Smith Mountain Lake about an hour and a half from my hometown of Staunton, Virginia and you can hike up the cliffs and jump out to water,” says the American horse rider.

“You can jump out at 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet. Well I was like, ‘if I’m jumping I’m going all the way to the top.’ It’s about 70 feet high.’ You really have to jump out to clear the rocks at the bottom so it wasn’t the smartest jump to begin with.”

Realising she didn’t have the momentum to clear the rocks she tried to stop but slipped and fell, breaking 46 bones.

Her left leg was so badly crushed, doctors told her she might never walk again, and that if she did she would need a walking stick. They also feared she might lose the sight in her left eye.

Ten years later, you wouldn’t know it apart from a tiny scar on the bridge of her nose, some marks on her arms and some serious scarring on her leg.

You might think that after a near-fatal accident she’d play things safe. Instead, Ferguson is still being a daredevil as one of the fearless trick riders in Cavalia. One of her tricks is galloping across the stage at breakneck speed blindfolded. And she really can’t see.

She did it for fun one day during rehearsals and next thing it was in the show. “It’s the scarf we use in the show and the funny thing is I honestly can’t see a thing,” she says. “You would think that now it’s a permanent part of the show that I would switch to some fabric I could see a little bit through. Everyday I think, ‘I’ve got to remember to do that’ and everyday I forget.”

She is also the star of the Roman riding routine, in which she controls six horses while standing astride two of them.

“A lot of people get injured and think, ‘Oh, I need to take it easy,’” she says. “I think the exact opposite. Yes, there is a time you need to heal but I think later there is a time you need to push through the pain and getting involved in working professionally with horses really helped me. Even now I wake up and my ankle can be really stiff and painful but having an active job really helps me keep everything going.”

After the accident, Ferguson spent six months in hospital where she had 13 surgeries. But throughout it all she remained defiantly optimistic.

“I just didn’t take no for an answer,” she says. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I would get back to where I was before the accident. I don’t know why but it was just the way my brain processed the whole situation.”

Ferguson grew up riding horses. When her accident put paid to a promising basketball career, she joined a horse-riding dinner theatre where she learned to do trick riding and Roman riding. In 2009, she auditioned successfully for Cavalia with her partner Chad Dyson who is also in the show.

Cavalia features more than 30 beautiful horses from a stable of 47 as well as acrobats and musicians. Ferguson rides and cares for three of the equine stars: Criollo and Amaretto in the Roman riding and Henry, her trick horse, who likes nothing better than to gallop as fast as he can.

When Ferguson leaves Cavalia, she says she will be done with performing.

“Because of everything, I feel super comfortable in a hospital so I want to go back and be an emergency room nurse,” she says.

“I just remember how I felt very, very clearly like it was yesterday. I remember what maybe I’d wished I’d had in hospital or what I wish somebody had said to me.  So I think I’m in a good position now to be that person for somebody else.

“It’s not that the nurses did anything wrong but I felt like I was just a routine. They were the only interaction you had sometimes and I remember thinking I wish they would be more chatty and even softer when they touch you. One would be rough when she gave me a shot (injection) or roll you over.

“On top of that I’m a very strong Christian so I think for myself if somebody had been there to say, ‘this is all part of God’s plan’, even if the person isn’t a Christian (it helps) to share their positivity. I sometimes felt that I was the only one being positive.”

Cavalia plays in the White Big Top, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney until June 16 then premieres at The Docklands, Melbourne on August 7.

An edited version of this story ran in the Daily Telegraph on May 30.