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Circus Oz puts on a show with plenty of altitude

“From the Ground Up” was inspired by classic black-and-white photographs of construction workers balancing atop steel girders.

Rob Blackburn

“From the Ground Up” was inspired by classic black-and-white photographs of construction workers balancing atop steel girders.

High-energy, fast-paced and fueled by live rock ’n’ roll, Circus Oz has been called “a little naughty, a little nice, a little death defying.” When Australia’s National Circus makes its Celebrity Series debut this week with “From the Ground Up,” this feisty little troupe from Melbourne will bring acrobats, jugglers, aerialists, an irreverent clown, and a magician who can’t seem to get anything right, all of whom also play instruments and contribute to the show’s driving musical score. “From the Ground Up” was inspired by classic black-and-white photographs of construction workers balancing atop steel girders, and the show’s striking centerpiece is a bright red swinging steel beam that facilitates all manner of daredevil stunts and gags. Circus Oz has performed in 26 countries over five continents. The Globe caught up with the company’s artistic associate and tour director, Ed Boyle, who spoke from a tour stop in California.

Q. What makes Circus Oz different from other small animal-free, rock ’n’ roll circuses, like Cirque Éloize and Les 7 Doigts de la Main?

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A. Circus Oz has always been about people who wanted to try and change the world for the better, and we’re very committed to equality and diversity. The company was created by artists [who] found their political message got across far more poetically when people were hanging upside down or swinging off things, and to this day it is run by artists, so it’s a very different psychology from many other contemporary companies. People are drawn to the core values of the company and what it represents, so there’s a constant pool of wonderful artists who continue to support the company.

Q. Artistic director Mike Finch has called Circus Oz “a family of friendly weirdos all trying to outdo each other,” suggesting that any Circus Oz show relies on assembling just that right group of people ready to experiment and embrace absurd ideas while “trying not to injure anyone along the way.” Has that always been the philosophy?

A. It has to be with circus, when your everyday reality is to work with people who balance tables on their feet. You have to embrace the absurd and the very real possibility that the tables may fall. You need a sense of humor to deal with that reality. Also, circus is the one place where you can believe your eyes. When there’s a group of people in the audience witnessing an amazing, dangerous trick that has been successfully completed, it’s one of those rare human moments that we all unite together. There’s fear, but there’s also hope that that person will succeed and when they do, we are all connected, whether you’re in the front row or in the very back.

Q. The show is geared for kids as young as 5, but it’s also a little rowdy and risqué, yes? How do you describe Circus Oz to people who’ve never seen it before?

A. We’re a little cheeky, a little serious, and have a lot of original music, a lot of energy. At face value, it’s an animal-free circus that celebrates diversity and human kindness. It’s a place where we celebrate being Australian. The history of Australia is very new, so it’s about embracing a new future together, based on a culture in progress. We now have an Aboriginal presence in the show. We have a master class program to provide creative pathways for fantastic upcoming indigenous artists to find places in a mainstream touring company. As a result, we have two performers in the current cast. Mark Sheppard is effectively our clowning MC and provocateur. Dale Woodbridge comes in as a gymnast and contemporary dancer and does flying trapeze and has created a very memorable character in the show.

Q. There’s original music throughout?

A. Except for one act, where there’s a musical reference to AC/DC, there’s two hours of original music, all live. All the performers also play instruments in the band, so it’s a multi-skilled ensemble. That’s a signature of Circus Oz.

Q. What’s the most dangerous bit in the show?

A. We have a fantastic acrobat, Mason West, who stands on top of a 7-meter sway pole without any net. He actually does a handstand, and that definitely gets people screaming. The sway pole comes up out of a piano, which is played by Ania Reynolds. He starts off doing this
Michelle Pfeiffer-esque [from “The Fabulous Baker Boys”] type dance on the piano and ends
7 meters up on top of this giant candelabra.

Q. And what do you think is the funniest routine?

A. [He laughs.] That would be a hard one to say. But there is one really bad magician. Absolutely everything goes wrong. It’s very Australian humor, and it takes a while for people to realize what’s going on. He’s either the best worst magician or the worst best magician.

Q. What’s the dynamic on tour with this group of people?

A. [Another chuckle.] It’s like traveling with a small village. We’re like a big family. The youngest performer is 22, the most senior is almost 52, so there’s a large range, but everyone hangs out together.
Wherever we go, we try to make the show and the theater feel like home. We go out exploring new cultures and people, then come back and put that energy into the show.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.
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