By Jessica Taurins
Harkening back to the carnivals and big tops of a hundred years ago, Circus 1903 is an absolute feast for the senses (including taste, if the ringmaster happens to toss some popcorn your way) and a delight for all ages.
Aside from the acrobats, strong men, and other performers – including the two puppet elephants – the major standout of the show is Evan Jolly’s original soundscape. Each individual act is set to a track that evokes perfectly the emotions of the performance, from a romantic aerial ballet to a daring pair of strongmen, and even a mildly unsettling ‘dislocationist’ wrapping her ankles around her elbows. The performances ebb and flow with the music beautifully, complementing each other in a remarkable way.
Of the performers themselves, each are ridiculously talented. The dislocationist – Ethiopian Mekdes Kebede – garnered the most cries from the audience as she contorted her body in increasingly intense ways, but all the others were well-loved as well. The Icarian Games performers – Ethiopians Mohammed Ibrahim and Hamza Seid – were utterly fantastic as one spun the other on top of their legs.
Another standout was German David Schnabel on the acrobatic bicycle, which is exactly as it sounds. Schnabel, an eight time world champion in artistic cycling, rode his bicycle across the stage in every possible way, including as a unicycle, and backwards while straddling the handlebars. The amount of skill and training to keep from riding straight off the stage was astonishing.
In terms of skill and training, all the performers are clearly masters of their craft. At times it can be fun to look past the flips and jumps and see the clear, concise communication between them all, and the work that goes into ensuring each others’ safety. The Teeterboard trio (Oskar Norin, Anton Persson, and Karl Wiberg, all from Sweden) calculate each other’s trajectories mid air while performing, and clearly only proceed with their flips when each of them are comfortable. There were a few moments when one didn’t bounce high enough or exactly hit their spot, so they would set up again to remain safe. The camaraderie between all of the performers comes across so clearly in their acts and brings a real sense of warmth and community to the small stories told in each performance.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a vintage circus without a few more things – a charismatic ringmaster and some animal performers. Thankfully, the days of Dumbo and real elephant performers are long over, so Queenie and her youngster Peanut are puppets created by Significant Object, the company also behind the horses used in the War Horse stage show. Queenie is puppeteered by 3 – 4 people, while Peanut is a single puppeteer, allowing the personalities of each creature to come across in their performances.
Peanut is jovial and cheeky, looking to be the centre of attention each time he hits the stage. The puppeteer nuzzles other performers and wags his head at the crowd, delighting everyone with how lifelike he is. On the other hand, Queenie is regal and gentle, traversing the stage with all the weight and gravitas of a real African elephant. The puppets are stunningly assembled and a true joy to include in a performance like this, so traditional circus elements can be honoured without including wild animals.
The ringmaster – American David Williamson – is a wonderful star as well. Williamson is both master of ceremonies and the host of onstage carnival games (all rigged, of course). He has a massive personality and never ceases to make his volunteers howl with laughter – and a bit of confusion, as most of them were under ten years old.
Williamson is a real master of improv, working well with the maturity of all the kids and simultaneously throwing asides to the adult audience members, going right over the kids’ heads with his jokes. When one kid is an attention-seeker, Williamson lets him parade for the crowd. When another tiny little girl, only five years old, becomes overwhelmed by all the noise onstage, he gently explains that it’s okay to be afraid and helps her back down the stairs to her family. Acting with kids can be difficult at the best of times, but Williamson’s skill and kindness shines through as he plays his games.
Circus 1903 feels like a real trip back to the early 1900s, at least what it looked like in the movies. The experience of acrobats, elephants, and a charming ringmaster was so joyful that it really shouldn’t be missed during its return to Australian soil.
Image: Jason Lau and Arts Centre Melbourne 2024