Melbourne Festival explores the language of circus with ‘Lexicon’

By Meg Crawford

Guidi is pumped for good reason, the show, which celebrates 250 years of circus in the ring, is on the cusp of a Botanic Gardens takeover as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

It’s exciting too because NoFit State, one of the UK’s most innovative and daring circus companies, explores new territory with Lexicon. Specifically, the 32-year-old Welsh outfit is famed for its roving circus shows, where the audience stands for the duration of the performance, putting them right in the thick of the action.

With Lexicon, the company harkens back to a more traditional style of circus where the audience is seated in a tent, although there’s no sense that the show is any less thrilling.

“This was one of the challenges for me,” Guidi says. “After doing shows for 15 years that had a standing audience right in the middle of the action where everything was very, very close to them, I was presented with a 700-seat venue, and I thought, ‘How am I going to preserve that kind of proximity? The kind of intimacy where the audience feels that they are part of this world and not simply watching from afar?’

“But we’ve preserved a proximity, an intimacy, and there’s a great deal of rushing through and popping out from the audience – we’ve still captured all of the muscularity, carnality, and warmth.”

But Guidi needn’t have been apprehensive – by all accounts Lexicon nails it. “Somebody at the end of the first show, which was in the south of France, said, ‘C’est du grand cirque’ – this is really great circus,” Guidi recalls. “As a quote, that was exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Lexicon is a supremely thoughtful piece of circus, making the best use of Guidi’s forensic approach to the show, all of which is unsurprising given that Guidi is a guest lecturer at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, has a PhD in 16th century tragedy and lectures all over the world.

“We started with research on the origins of circus, going to museums of circus, and spending a lot of time in the British Library archives of family circus and early fairground,” Guidi recalls. “I imbued myself with that.”

The next step was to track down a cast who could deliver her vision, which opened up a whole new world of performers. “All of a sudden, I could audition people I couldn’t previously with a show where there was a standing audience,” she explains. “With a seated audience, I could prioritise skills, which I couldn’t before, like juggling.”

It also led Guidi to reflect on the evolution of circus in the last ten to 15 years, during which time it’s been belatedly recognised as an art form.

“I didn’t want to throw the circus baby out with the bath water,” she says. “The research for this actually brought me back to the skills, the traditional circus families and the day-to-day dedication involved in what they did.

“The show isn’t about ‘I do circus because I move certain things or certain objects,’ but really pays homage to a series of traditional skills, which require a lot of dedication, time and danger.”

It was the research too that fuelled her thinking for one of the show’s most indelible images – vintage desks and performers flying over the stage. “By going back to the origins of the circus form, my thinking was that I needed to celebrate their genesis.

“It was almost like going back to school for us, which is where the student and vintage desk concept came from. School is one of the first places where we learn about rules, and circus is a place where we can learn to break them.”

In fact, the show’s whole narrative explores the concept of circus as an avenue for rule breakers and outliers. “The entire dramaturgy of the piece is about getting rid of the figure of authority and showing that those who ran away with the circus – the misfits and the outcasts – are actually the ones whose imagination provokes magic. Not magic like Harry Potter with a magic wand. The magic here is misbehaving and in order to misbehave you need to have imagination.”

The other element of magic, from Guidi’s perspective, comes from revealing how the show is rigged.

“Everybody will see nine people on nine desks flying in the air and they will also see – if they want to see it – the human beings that bring them up in the air. There are no motors, no engines, no winches in the background. There is no hiding of the machinery and that’s also created magic,” she says.

“It’s actually a feat of engineering to take everybody up in the air, and have a swinging trapeze seamlessly going up and down to the ground with the performer on it, who can then just step out without doing anything.”

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