Return to Oz 

Thirty years ago, Australia's Circus Oz pioneered the art of cirque nouveau. Today it remains on the fringes of the genre.

The nostalgia-based phenomenon of tent pole circuses without animals reached its zenith with Cirque du Soleil, an internationally known performance company that launched 25 years ago in Quebec. By resurrecting old traditions of acrobatics and clowning and presenting them in a highly stylized, contemporary format (a live rock band, a multi-cultural cast of performers, Vegas pyrotechnics, and a quasi-coherent storyline that glues everything together), Cirque du Soleil quickly became a household name. It's now the eight hundred-pound gorilla of so-called "cirque nouveau" shows, but it's not the originator. Australia's lesser-known Circus Oz actually predates Cirque du Soleil by about six years. Conceived around the same time as San Francisco's Pickle Family Circus, Circus Oz set the bar for every high-quality indoor variety show that followed. It's a lot more irreverent than Cirque du Soleil (Oz features Monty Python-style slapstick, female "strongmen," drag performance, and stunts that incorporate the Australian flag in various imaginative ways) and a bit more homegrown (hence the kangaroo costumes), so it hasn't drawn as much attention as it's larger, more dazzling counterpart. Yet, the impiety of Circus Oz makes it a much more interesting show.

What most distinguishes this show from others in its vein is the performers' willingness to upend all the indoor-circus conventions, even at the risk of alienating some audience members. Rarely, besides a Mark Morris dance performance, do we see the variety of body shapes and sizes depicted in Circus Oz, which includes husky female trapeze artists whose thick, taut muscles belie their elegant movements, along with clowns in fat suits and kangaroo tails, and tumblers with Gumby limbs. Many of the cast members started out as buskers and street performers who came to the circus through several unorthodox channels: acrobat Flip Kammerer is also a break dancer and pro skater; clown Nicci Wilks has moonlighted in Shakespearian theater and drag king shows; aerial artist Sosina Wogayehu toured for five years with Circus Ethiopia; clown Justin McGinley trained in cabaret and stand-up, and has a degree in psychology. The resulting pastiche of influences makes for a show that's as indebted to punk rock and hip-hop as it is grounded in circus arts.

Circuz Oz's brazen humor and contemporary aesthetic put it just a little to the left of your average small circus; not to mention it's overtly political — part of the proceeds get funneled to human rights charities and indigenous communities. Many of its performances end in a giant explosion or conflagration, which might not go over so well at the more socially conservative Cirque du Soleil. But at this show it seems apropos. Circus Oz celebrates its 30th anniversary bash at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall (Bancroft Way at Telegraph Ave.) from February 5 through 8. $26-$48. CalPerfs.berkeley.edu

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