Circus Oz in Close to the Bone at The Melba Spiegeltent is a unique take on contemporary circus. The 100 year old Belgian mirror tent, previously based at the Melbourne Docklands, is now permanently based at the Circus Oz headquarters in Collingwood. This makes it the perfect venue for Circus Oz to debut this short season of their intimate, raw take on their usual large scale touring show.

The Spiegeltent’s have a unique atmosphere that adds a certain something to every performance. Director Debra Batton states in the program that they wanted to create a show that “…didn’t meet the expectations of what a usual Spiegeltent show should be.” That, at the very least, they have done. Close to the Bone is clearly not just another example of the “glamorous entertainment that is typical of Spiegeltent’s”. There is very little about this show that is ‘glamorous’. Guest Directors Simon Yates and Jo-Ann Lancaster are apparently known for the ‘anti-aesthetic’ of their productions, which is seen very clearly in this performance. The constrained nature of the space, and extreme closeness of the audience, means that the ‘polish’ that distance can provide, is not there. The audience can clearly see that not only are the costumes quite dark, and clearly not portraying the festive sparkle and colour we associate with circus, but are also worn and showing the strain that such physical performance subjects them to. In fact, Nathan Kell’s costume failed in the opening Chinese Pole act, ripping open down his side, which seem to cause him considerable pain by the end of his impressive act. This initial performance brought home to the audience just how different this show would be to previous circus performances we may have seen. From a distance of just a couple of metres away at most, the front row could clearly see every muscle straining, sweat beading, hear grunts of effort, or the sound of the pole being hit, see the stitching fraying on his costume and see first-hand how very close to the ground Kell often ended up. The intimacy removed the way distance usually makes such acrobatic performances look effortless, and instead provided the audience with a raw view of the effort and strength required. This theme continued throughout the performances, providing a unique ‘up close and personal’ perspective to each new act. Not only could we clearly see the physical strain the performers were under, but before long, we could smell it. Gasps from the audience not only indicated concern for the performers, but for the audience itself, as a fall or dropping of a prop would have had the audience diving for cover. This caused an unusual tension in the audience, as they were entertained, but also tensed to move quickly if something should go wrong.

The show opened to a lively performance from the resident band, led by dynamic Musical Director Ania Reynolds on Saxophone. One of the aspects of the show I enjoyed the most, was that the band was almost entirely made up of the circus performers – they are a multi-talented bunch!  Only Reynolds and the drummer Ben Hendry did not actively participate in the acrobatics (although they were still included in some of the circus performances). The band included guitars, banjo, trumpet, piano, a Melodica and a selection of percussion instruments ranging from a gourd to a rubber chicken drumstick. Performers would enter and leave the band depending on the acrobatic performance currently under way.

The slightly dark vibe of the show continued with Lillikoi Kaos’ hoop performances, assisted (in the guise of conflict) by Dale Woodbridge-Brown. Kaos’ persona is fierce and aggressive, which was suited to the theme of the conflict between the 2 characters, and the raw approach continued with a very simplistic costume (basically sports bra and briefs) and a deliberately unpolished approach, with Kaos continuously tugging at and adjusting her underwear. Definitely no glamour here! Kaos’ control of over 20 hoops, however, particularly on such a small stage, was quite impressive.

Between acts, the audience’s attention was redirected in various ways – by the band circumnavigating the tent, or at one time, by the entire audience being blindfolded. At one stage, our view was directed away from the stage by the use of a handheld spotlight. Olivia Porter appeared on the table of one of the booths, and circulated through the back of the tent with her juggling performance, as changes occurred on stage. Her characterisation also had a dark element, vacillating between a disturbing blank countenance, and one of extreme tension and anxiety. Her incredible manipulation of the small juggling balls was portrayed as an extension of her character, like a nervous tic. The music played by the band accentuated the mood this created. Porter’s interaction with the audience, without engaging with them at all, was mildly disturbing. Her attention never seemed to focus on the audience, even when she was using them as a prop to bounce or roll her ball on.

The next performer flew into our view suspended on a safety line form the roof of the tent. Once again, this was slightly uncomfortable, as Matt Wilson appeared to be wearing pajamas, and for a moment, looked like he was hanging from the wire by his neck. Before the audience could take that in, however, and before his amazing balancing act could begin, what appeared to be a major costume malfunction occurred, leaving Wilson naked. In hindsight, I now know there is a warning regarding possible nudity on the website and a suggested 15 plus age limit. There was no warning with the initial announcements however, despite warnings to be ready to duck, and no mention in the program.  Clearly the parents of the 2 pre-teens in the front row were not aware, and the girls were clearly mortified. The dark humour continued as Wilson struggled to get into his underwear while suspended from the ceiling and attempting to cover himself. A more serious note quickly returned as he undertook a seemingly impossible balancing act and removed his safety line.

Spenser Inwood’s aerial ring performance was next. While the lead-up to this act seemed unnecessary, the performance itself was another chance to see a traditional circus performance that is usually far away from the audience, up close and personal. This once again highlighted the strength and skill required, and ironically, added tension, despite the fact that the performer was at a much safer distance above the stage than normal.
The performance that probably has the audience most concerned for their own safety was Kyle Raferty’s unicycle. The balance needed for such an act is always impressive – add a stage runway that looks less than a metre wide and the stage proper about 2 metres in diameter, and the tension (and skill required) is definitely raised!

There were several acts that included a larger number of performers together on stage, which in such close confines, required extreme precision. The only act that was somewhat disappointing, if only in its brevity, was Woodbridge-Brown’s rope act.  I’m not sure if something occurred to cut it short, or if it was planned, but it hardly seemed worth the time spent to set it up.

Overall, the show was highly entertaining and memorable. They certainly met their goal in bringing something new to the Spiegeltent, and condensing the elements of circus performance to a raw, fundamental level, that left the audience in no doubt of the strength and skill of the performers.