by | Jul 2, 2024

By Natalie Ristovski

Circus Arts are alive – if not overly well – in Australia in a post pandemic world. Like many in the arts, the circus set has been through the wringer these few years past, the Great Moscow Circus itself being grounded in 2021 while the country navigated a painfully slow return to ‘normal,’ perhaps more so for a company touting the name ‘Moscow Circus,’ given the ongoing political situation in Europe and people’s sensitivities around it.

The Moscow Circus’ website is very clear on this point – the trademark and branding has been Australian owned and operated since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, it has been the lovechild of circus royalty – the Edgely and Weber Families – touring the country in $10,000,000 setup comprising of “25 trucks, 12 clown cars, 26 accommodation vans, a fully equipped laundry, a workshop and mobile garage…its own ticket o ice, circus school, canteen, merchandise caravan and horse trailers.”

It is an impressive venue to be sure, and it has all the bells and whistles, trimmings and sparkles to make for a spectacular show. The arena itself is smaller than some of the larger international touring circus stages, which a ords a welcome intimacy between the artist and viewer. Which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on where the theatrical chips may fall.

On the lazy Sunday afternoon that I attended, the arena was only half-full, and the audience was what I like to call a ‘listening crowd.’ Were they enraptured? Did they even care that they were there? You would never know – they were a painful lot that made the artist’s work far harder than anyone should have to work on a cold and rainy day. Despite the cacophony of noise and activity all around them, the crowd was at best flat and stoic, give or take a few paltry attempts at acting engaged during audience participation segments. They at least had the decency to hold their gasps and applause at the shows more extreme moments, but overall, I would not wish this type of crowd on anyone trying to keep it together after a long weekend’s work – particularly not those whose entire show seems to rely on audience engagement to keep the mood up.

And therein lay much of the problem. With a crowd that was basically star-fishing, many of the artists seemed at a bit of a loss with how to navigate their performances. It was clear that someone had told them backstage that they needed to hype us all up – there were a lot of engagement strategies being employed by artists who really should not have needed to remind people to clap. There’s only so much waving of your arms and putting your hand to your ear one can do before it starts to feel uncomfortable for everyone.

The acts themselves were spectacular, albeit mostly far too brief for anyone to really get their teeth into, with many segments ending just as the tension was rising. The talent of the circus artists was phenomenal, and their skill and ability to navigate their craft was perfection. There were a few standouts – Hewin Lyezkosky Bolivar did a wonderful job of kicking up the adrenaline with his opening performance in the Great Wheel, and both the Tissu/Silks (Tiani Weber) and Trapeze (Tahlia Weber) artists were stunning to watch for the brief stage time they had. Motorcyclists Loys, Hewin and Jaspion were terrifying and breathtaking as the Globe Riders in the finale, and Gosha, Andrei and Danil on Trampoline brought a refreshing charm and comedic element to the whole affair.

Armenian clown Gagik Avetisyan did well to keep the audience amused and entertained while the very large props and set pieces were removed and installed (shout out to the amazing crew who managed to get the job done relatively swiftly and very much safely). Gagik was a able and engaging, though a few of his audience participation tropes were rather heteronormative and gender stereotypical. He skated the line between fun and obnoxious well…but seemed to run out of steam towards the end, when set changeovers started to feel drawn out and clunky.

Vocals were tackled by MC and host Elly Rowbotham, who had a lovely singing voice and managed her sets graciously. She did not quite capture the commanding presence one would expect of a compere and, faced with that woeful Sunday audience, her energy seemed to diminish with each number, which was a shame because she certainly had the talent to do more.

It is unclear whether her lack of engagement with the crowd was a personal or directorial choice, as there was a decidedly male-dominated element to the entire production. Aside from the previously mentioned members of the Weber family, there seemed to be little to no real inclusion for femme presenting artists outside the age-old trope of being eye-candy sprinkled around the main events. Very thin and toned, very white, very bored-seeming dancers moved out of sync looking like they wanted to be anywhere but where they were. Outfits were spectacularly sparkly and just as skimpy, stunning flesh-coloured leotards left little to the imagination and at one point the word ‘burlesque’ was projected onto a screen as Christina Aguilera crackled through the speakers…all well and good, except for the fact that it seems to have been largely touted as a family show – the mother beside me at one point leaned over to note that “there’s a lot of bum happening up there.” Now I love me some nice bums as well as the next person, but not when they are obviously placed front and centre for the male gaze during an afternoon matinee.

The shows tech was hit and miss – lighting was on point and sound cues were perfectly timed. What let the entire production down was a sound system that did not seem able to support the magnitude of the show it was being used for – speakers were dotted around the centre of the arena facing outward, giving the audio a kind of one dimensional and mu led quality that meant a lot of the dialogue/lyrics were missed and the music never quite lived up to its own hype.

Overall, attending this show was a bittersweet affair. As a tasting platter of circus fare, it is palatable enough, but fails to dazzle as the extravaganza that it claims to be, at least for a city audience – I would hazard a guess that the dinner-theatre 80s/90s nostalgia will go down better with a more rural crowd. The production is clearly a labour of love for someone (though definitely not the dancers), and the circus family element was heartening to see (the artists doubled as merchandise sellers and co ee makers etc – and were lined outside to send the audience on their way after the performance with smiles and waves). There was a lot missing from the lineup – judging by the additional acts included in the program – which may have been due to a rotation of performances, or perhaps a downsizing of the show due to the smaller audience? Either way, it left a feeling of wanting and incompletion.

Post-pandemic, one wants very much to support independent Australian productions, particularly in the fringe arts – however the Great Moscow Circus is a bit of a tired reminder of how far the world has come, and how quickly one can be left behind if it does not do the necessary work to bring their art into the new century. There is so much amazing about this show – and it has everything to do with the artists. I hope that the producers and creative team take the necessary time to give them all a supporting spectacle worthy of their talents before their next tour.

Images: Chowie photography

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