Circus 1903

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Published: 6th January, 2017

January is a traditional time for classical musicians to lay down their instruments and go to the beach, as far as we can gather, given the lack of concerts in town. So Classic Melbourne is taking an interest in events outside our usual brief, based simply on what we think our readers might be interested in!

And who does not love the circus? We could make an argument that this is about the music. After all, there is a long tradition of music written specially for the circus from the first composer who specialised on this genre – Charles Dibdin (1745 – 1814) to our own versatile (and accomplished) Nigel Westlake whose early career as a clarinettist included touring with a circus troupe and later composing for it as well as for fusion bands, ballet, chamber music ensembles, and orchestras.

The show Circus 1903 – in Melbourne until January 11 – has recorded music by the appropriately named composer Evan Jolly. It certainly belongs within the conventions of circus music being fast-paced, cheerful and very, very loud! Like the show itself.

But if it was not quite “the most amazing show on earth” as touted, nor really about the music. Circus 1903 captured an audience of mixed ages and expectations with a warm and at times thrilling performance at the historic Regent Theatre in Melbourne. With a touch of virtually everything we love about circus, this one cleverly places itself in a theatre, so it has a greater sense of history. Ringmaster David Williamson has as much control over the audience’s reaction as he does over the many acts he steers through this two-hour magical experience.

There are acrobats, jugglers, cyclists, and a contortionist fittingly called “the elastic dislocationist”, high-wire artists – and the inevitable knife-throwing act. They appear to represent many nationalities and yet give the impression of a close-knit group, another feature we love about circuses. They may not be Cirque du Soleil, but judging from the audience reaction, they gave the audience everything they wanted and more. It was particularly gratifying to see the many children in the audience loving every gag and trick.

These days it is not usual for circuses to feature live animals in the way that they used to. With good reason. But in a stroke of genius, the producers of Circus 1903 have solved that problem by having a pair of elephants, mother and baby, which are puppets, just like the famous creations for the play War Horse. Three puppeteers control the mother and one works the baby (Peanut), with a further two handlers moving between them. The illusion was complete, particularly with the cute baby which was clearly the children’s favourite in the whole performance.

You will have gathered that Classic Melbourne endorses this show for audiences who simply want to be entertained and take the children to something they remember from their own childhoods. We give a bonus point for the souvenir programme, which unlike so many of its type is not a collection of advertisements, but is packed with information about this production and the wonderfully talented people who have brought it to Australia.

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Editor’s note: given Classic Melbourne’s recently published intention to be an advocate for training in the arts, particularly performance, we wish to make you aware of a decision last year to remove funding or loans for a large number of arts-related training courses, among them Circus Arts, according to the University of Melbourne’s Professor Jo Caust, in an article for The Conversation first published on October 19, 2016. She commented:

“The Federal Government is now considering cutting funding to students who wish to undertake creative arts training. Education Minister Simon Birmingham has said he believes training in the creative arts is a ‘lifestyle’ choice and cannot lead to a satisfactory career or any economic outcome.”

A packed audience at Circus 1903 would appear to disagree.

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Circus 1903 is at the Regent until January 14, 2017. More details and bookings.