There’s a girl standing on my shoulders, and I’m okay with it. In fact, she’s balancing so well it’s like she’s not even there.
It’s Friday lunchtime, and I’m warming up with Australian circus rascals Gravity & Other Myths (GOM). Unfortunately, despite my childhood dreams, I won’t be performing with them in A Simple Space, which they’ve been touring and perfecting over the past three years. Instead, I’m backstage at the Underbelly before the show, to stretch, balance, flip and talk about their place in contemporary circus.
What becomes immediately clear is how little separates their training and their live show. Certainly, there’s more of a structure to what audiences come to see, and a clear element of theatrics, but when you see A Simple Space there’s a sense that you’re just watching eight friends goof around. And hanging out with the troupe as they prepare, there’s just as much competitive play, teamwork and giggles as they project on stage.
“That’s how the show was made,” confirms Jacob 'Jake' Randell, sporting a big grin while stretching his hamstrings. “It was actually made with the idea of going, ‘Let’s try and show the audience what training’s like, what we do behind the scenes'. We just jam out, we play games with each other.”
Jamming, like a band? There’s a chorus of "yep"s. “Circus jam!” shouts Randell, and everyone chuckles. The games are hugely entertaining, often involving one-upmanship, escalation and endurance – and sometimes their faces seem to say, “Dude, are you serious?”, as if this time they’re pushing it too far. But they pull it off, day in, day out.
So who’s the choreographer? A few of the guys—some standing on each other’s backs—exchange knowing glances, before Randell continues: “Eight brains. Eight people on the floor, talking to each other, saying, ‘I reckon this’ll kinda go well’, and ‘Naaah, what about...’ It’s a gruelling process, but the outcome, the actual result, will be a spectacular thing, because everyone agrees, everyone has something they really want in the show.”
“You end up with a lot more ownership of the work, as a whole team, collectively,” adds Lachlan 'Lachy' Binns, rolling his leg on a curiously textured foam tube.
This total lack of ‘outsourcing’ any aspect of their performance (they even manage their own lighting, by hand, during the show) creates a refreshingly intimate link between the acrobats and the audience, an emerging trait of shows from that continent.
“Australian circus has a very unique style in that it’s very real,” explains Jascha Boyce, one of the troupe’s two women, as she prepares to be thrown across the room. “It’s a style that doesn’t come up that much around the world. A lot of contemporary new circus focuses on story and character; Australian circus does that a little bit, but also there’s a real connection that performers have with audiences.”
While there’s a place for the enchanting narratives and wide-eyed dramatics of international circus companies like Les 7 Doigts De La Main and Flip FabriQue, however well-sketched the bonds between those performers might be, nothing comes close to the genuine, conspicuous friendships of the GOM team.
“We’d like audiences to experience the joy we experience when we do this,” Binns expands. “We’ve been doing it for so long—a lot of us have been friends for 15 years now—and we do it because we love it. It’s a job now, and it pays, and it’s credible work, but really we were doing it long before we got paid.”
In between my questions, the guys zip feedback on tricks across the room, tiny packets of jargon, and it’s electrifying. Everyone is open and understanding, and there’s a naturally democratic method to their workshopping, free of ego, that feels woven into the fabric of their art.
Binns waxes philosophical on the value of circus, casually working a Rubik’s Cube. “Maybe it’s the ability to take risks in safe ways, and trust your friends and your peers to support you and help you out.” He means support emotionally, I think, although there’s now a guy standing on my head, so it could well be literal.
“Growing up, it was really good for confidence and cooperation and all that kind of empowerment stuff,” he continues. “We teach workshops as well back home: corporate team-building workshops, workshops for kids, workshops for school groups, holiday programmes, everyday classes. It’s amazing to see a group of people come into a room, and they’re a bit reserved and shy and not really moving around that much, and you get them moving, get them playing with each other, get ‘em catching each other, throwing each other, climbing all over each other, and then when they leave they’re beaming and moving and touching each other. It gets you comfortable with other people, helps you trust, helps you take risks.”
This extends to the wider circus community. “People getting into theatre have such a hard time cracking into the industry, whereas circus is a little bit more supportive, a bit more of a family. If I travel the world as a circus performer, I’ve got friends everywhere.”
While seven of the team rehearse a couple of routines—and throw a backflip or two for good measure—one is sat at his drum pads, tapping out quiet percussion in the background. This is Elliot 'EZ' Zoerner, the troupe’s resident beatmaker. Unlike the majority of circus shows, which use prerecorded backing tracks, A Simple Space is propelled by gripping live percussion and loops.
“This whole show is very DIY, so it would be weird to have prerecorded music and somebody else controlling that from the sound booth,” says Zoerner. It elevates the show to something cohesive and dynamic. “Every day there are a few mistakes; sometimes it’ll be the acrobats that catch up with the music and then sometimes I might have to add an extra couple of bars here and improvise a little bit.”
Circus is, inherently, a free-form and experimental discipline. It’s that freedom that first appealed to the sprightly Lachlan Harper, who first trained as a gymnast. “Gymnastics is really rigid and you have set skills you have to do, whereas circus lets you explore everything you could possibly think of," he says. "There’s not really a ‘wrong move’ in terms of circus; you can do anything and it’s always fine.”
Harper’s a relatively recent addition to the team, while Binns and Martin Schrieber are among GOM’s founding members. They recount their first big break: “We got pretty lucky a couple of years ago,” recalls Binns. “We got this opportunity, most of us were at uni—one massage therapist, these guys were studying engineering, I was doing graphic design—and we all just dropped everything, third year of university.”
After touring their debut show Freefall around Australia, they developed A Simple Space with bigger aims, and struck gold. “We made this show and thought, ‘let’s just give it a go, try and do it overseas, see what happens. Maybe it’s the last thing we ever do, maybe it’s the beginning of something good'.”
A Simple Space is part of the Made in Adelaide showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.