NICA: Circus Showcase 2011

Posted on 05 December 2011

Melbourne is fortunate enough to have one of the most interesting of resources: The National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA). I was aware of its founding in 1995. At the time I mentored for Big Brothers Big Sisters and kept encouraging my little mentoree to run away and join them. Since I’m keen to learn more about physical comedy and I love acrobatic circus, I was overjoyed at the chance to see NICA’s Circus Showcase 2011. This featured the year’s graduating students. I wasn’t disappointed.

I attended the matinee. So, I was surrounded by school-age children. Kids can be the acid test as to whether a show is working, since they only respond when something genuinely interests them. Clearly much of the show emphasized an adult aesthetic. They used balletic choreography, stylised storytelling, artistic costuming, and atmospheric lighting. However, they did not lose their young viewers. They just added to the “cool” factor as each performer demonstrated their physical prowess. This is the basis for Cirque de Soleil‘s success: it engages people of all ages.

I was pleased these graduates were taught that circus is not just physical demonstration. We aren’t watching the Olympics. Circus is all about performance. Therefore, most show segments set up a dramatic situation which contextualised their physical activities. One example was Emma Shepherd’s vignette about escaping a war-zone, and therefore needing to twist and turn and balance on a suspended net. Mind you, even simple hoop acts or juggling were made dramatic by “accidentally” missing a jump or dropping a ball at the beginning. So when the performer is about to attempt a more virtuosic stunt, the audience feels tension as to whether or not they can succeed—and feel elated when they do.

Particularly shrewd was how a number of the graduates made use of character projection. When a performer projects a particular character, the audience relates to them as a human being, not just a moving body. Their character may be stereotypical, but they are recognisable and the audience makes an empathetic connection. When Vanessa McGregor pours on the lighthearted allure in her burlesque trapeze act, the last thing you want to see is her falling. So every success in her series of moves is our success.

Character projection is even more important for those graduates who were studying clowning. These are the people who get to fall down. If you don’t care about them, then you will be unconcerned when they fall, and not see the humour when they bounce back up. Reuben Zalme did a superb job of illustrating character in his mime act. Struggling with his wayward puppet-hand, we were delighted by the story that unfolded and what it said about his (and his hand’s) persona. The kids rightfully went nuts for Staniforth Ricketson’s Tarzan act. Tosha Tharp-Kindley could explore this area further. She has a beautifully expressive face and would make an outstanding comedian.

The one notable omission in this show was audience participation. You can have a sexy, thrilling, deeply aesthetic show and still find moments where you actively engage your audience. CircusOz are experts at this. Certainly, talking to and guiding your audience is not an easy skill, but it is a common part of many circus acts and these graduates are going to have to use it at some point in their career.

So many of the cast in Circus Showcase 2011 showed talent and promise that I will probably get into trouble for not mentioning everyone. Takayuki Seki was exceptionally attention grabbing with his juggling ninja act. His grand fall at the beginning was breathtaking. Julian White, Brian Talaga, and Jennifer Simon all ooze charm. Jessica Niven’s swinging trapeze act was the perfect attention grabber for bringing the children into the show. In all we saw seventeen performers showcased whose skills were polished to a fine professional gloss. It’s no wonder we’ve been seeing an explosion of circus in Melbourne. Congratulations graduates!

Peace and kindness,


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