Circus is something of a new look for the Celebrity Series of Boston, which for decades was mostly a showcase of the best in classical music, jazz, and dance. Of course, when you consider that Gary Dunning, the organization’s new president and executive director, was the longtime executive director of the Big Apple Circus, you see an apparent connection to next week’s Boston debut of Circa. But Dunning points out that when he came on board last year, Circa - an Australian contemporary circus company - had already been booked for some time.
Circa has several shows in its repertory, but “Circa’’ is the one it will perform Wednesday through March 4 on the Paramount Center Mainstage, with a cast of seven and music ranging from Leonard Cohen to Sigur Rós, Aphex Twin, and Venetian Snares.
“Some of the techniques in balancing hand-to-hand come straight out of the old tradition,’’ Dunning says, “but it’s been blended with a contemporary stage and dance vocabulary.’’
How does one become this new kind of circus performer? Speaking over the phone from the troupe’s stop in Montreal, Darcy Grant recalls that, for him, it all started when he was 13.
“I’d always been into performing arts, but I was also very into sports. I saw the Flying Fruit Fly Circus on television and wrote a letter to them, and they asked me to come down and audition, so I did, and I got in. And then my parents moved 3,500 kilometers from North Queensland down to a very rural area on the border between Victoria and New South Wales so I could join the circus.’’
He spent five years at Flying Fruit Fly, which calls itself “Australia’s only full time circus training institution for children.’’ In 2003, Grant moved on to Brisbane, to the Rock ’n’ Roll Circus.
“It was a lot like what it sounds,’’ he says. “It was formed in the ’80s by a bunch of circus punks in Australia, and they made really edgy work for about a decade, and after that, they employed Yaron [Lifschitz] as their new director, who is our current director, and he took them in a very different direction that most of them didn’t like very much, so they all left.’’
In 2004, Lifschitz changed the name of the company to Circa and went in yet another direction, which Grant describes as “improvising acrobatics with circus. It’s looking at the simplest of rolls on the floor, seeing where it can go, what emotional range it has, and what does it look like if you break it apart, speed it up, or slow it down. And then Yaron has a great brain for being able to throw out-there concepts at us. Like asking one of the girls to put on high-heeled shoes and climb over the men, and ask them to do acrobatics while being a human pincushion.’’
Even without high heels, all the jumping about can be hazardous - as his partner, Emma McGovern, now knows in her bones.
“We were onstage at the Sydney Opera House, and on her very first entrance, she leapt onstage and broke her ankle,’’ he recalls. “And because it was only two minutes into the show, we as a group - and you can imagine one of seven is actually quite a big hole to have in your show all of a sudden - were able to improvise the rest of the show and receive a full standing ovation, and it all went amazingly well. Even Emma looks back now and says, ‘Oh, it was awful, but it was a triumph.’ ’’
And don’t think McGovern just limped offstage. “She came back two more times,’’ Grant says, “because she’s very, very tough. Eventually, someone held onto her ankle, because we do this act called ‘Toss the Girl,’ where we hold the girls by the ankles and the hands and just throw them across the room. And that was when she knew that she couldn’t go on. So someone picked her up and carried her off and put her straight into the ambulance.’’Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.