The circus is coming to town, but not the boring, traditional circus where some guy cracks a whip at a bunch of cranky, confused lions. Cutting-edge performance troupe Circus Oz – known as Australia's National Circus – will take over Tacoma’s Pantages Theatre for three big shows on Feb. 1 and 2.
Expect a dazzling array of acrobatics, music and humor. Guitarist Carl Polke will be among the dozen or so performers onstage next week. And we rang him at the troupe's Port Melbourne, Australia headquarters for a little background.
TW: This appears to be your first appearance in this market in the United States. What should we expect?
Polke: We've got a very exciting and fun show for you guys. It's a circus show with live music of all varying sorts. There’s lots of acrobats entertaining. There's humor. There's a little bit of full-on, emotive kind of stuff. I don't know, all those other words that go with circus – high skills. (He laughs.) It's a bunch of adults having a bloody good time; that's what it actually is.
TW: So this circus started in 1978. Tell me a bit about its philosophy and what set it apart from what people used to think of as the circus.
Polke: When it started it was a collective, to begin with. One of the main things was it was a non-traditional circus in so far as it had no animals. That's become more of the norm; it's fairly accepted nowadays. But back then it was quite groundbreaking.
It had a political viewpoint, which they represented onstage. The company also strove for sexual equality onstage, as well. The women were strong and weren't portrayed as, you know, your classic feathered showgirls. And it sort of grew from there.
Basically, a lot of the content was, I guess, political satire mixed with circus skills. … Not shying away from a political comment is still part of the company, as is representing men and women – as well as all people – equally onstage.
TW: The show you are touring with is called “From the Ground Up.” What does that entail? And is there some sort of story line?
Polke: There's no specific story line. There is a bit of what you call a “through line.” At the beginning of the rehearsal time, the artistic director has an overarching concept, which was a construction site for this one. So people start creating material from the floor, which eventually works its way into a show.
It is one of those situations where some of the characters don't quite fit in completely with the work site. But you know, with a little bit of imagination and a little bit of muckin' around we sort of shoehorn them in there. And it all kind of works.
TW: It is obviously pretty physically demanding. What kind of training goes into preparing for a show like this?
Polke: All the acrobats and performers, they've trained their own skill from an early age. Most of them have done some gymnastics, at least from high school age. Many of them have come from a circus school called the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, which is based in Albury. It's a circus high school, basically.
Other performers have come from various other circus backgrounds. But they've all had good training in acrobatics prior to joining Circus Oz. And once you get to that level, you basically do whatever is necessary to maintain your skill levels, fitness wide.
There is training every day with a teeterboard, which is a seesaw-like device. What do you guys call it? A teeter totter. … That requires daily training, 'cause it is quite a dangerous piece of apparatus. Every day they'll go through a set routine and people will just warm up their tricks just to get one or two under their belt before they do them onstage.
TW: With the band, it looks like not only do you have to concentrate on playing, I have seen a video where you have the drummer swinging above the stage.
Polke: Yeah, the drum hull. Beck, the drummer, had an idea of trying to play the drums while flying through the air. And during the rehearsal process (she and) one of the riggers, Chad ... came up with this device. She flies around while everyone's doing acrobatics around her.
One of the beauties of it is that we try not to intentionally hide things. In fact, that act in particular – and another one, the straps act – you see Chad working quite physically to actually create the movement that is going onstage with the rigging. This thing is swinging a bit like a bell. … and Chad is on other end on what would be the bell rope, hauling it back and forth as she swings around.
TW: What would you point to as the showstoppers?
Polke: Well, there's a flying trapeze, which is pretty good skill level, and it's pretty funny at the same time. You know, really we're Australian; we just like to take the piss out of things. That's what it comes down to. It's quite a strong cultural trait that Australians have, not to take anything too seriously.
Look, I've got to mention the guitar battle with myself and Genoa. Genoa, when she came on board … she happened to mention she placed in the national air guitar championships in Australia. And as soon as I heard that I thought, “Wait a minute. We have to have an air guitar versus a real guitar battle in the show.” So we've managed to put that in there.
It's all pretty spectacular. The large opening number is good. And keep your eye open. There might be an occasional kangaroo bouncing by.