By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — Since its launch in 1991, the yearly production of the Women's Circus has been an eagerly awaited event. Audiences have been thrilled by the celebration of women's diversity, vitality and strength in the previous two productions. This year's show, taking place from November 12 to December 4, promises to be as or more exciting.
The Women's Circus began as an opportunity for women to learn circus skills in a supportive and non-competitive environment. The first group of women invited to join were survivors of sexual abuse.
"We feel that it's very important politically for women to reclaim their own bodies, particularly those who have been subjected to abuse", director Donna Jackson told Green Left Weekly. Many of these women are still with the circus, having found it invaluable in regaining a sense of pride and strength.
The members of the circus range in age from 11 to mid-50s, and are of diverse cultural backgrounds, fitness and physicality. Although most had no prior performance experience, critics and audiences have been amazed by the high level of their skills.
As well as 60 women who are involved in the current production, another 60 are waiting to join. Jackson attributes the success of the circus to its non-competitive atmosphere, in which women are encouraged to set their own goals and develop skills in the areas they are best at.
It is also an opportunity to explore their physicality in a comfortable environment. "Many women are, like myself, gym dropouts who have been totally put off by the whole lycra and leotard scene", Jackson says. "The women who we are really trying to encourage to join at the moment are women over 40 and women of non-Anglo backgrounds, who often feel very excluded from that sort of scene."
The themes taken up by the circus deal with sexual abuse and other feminist issues, but in a broad framework. Last year's production, for example, looked at work and the impact of workplace "restructuring".
Jackson feels that this is an important development. "In the '60s and '70s it was important for women's theatre to focus strongly on gender issues, but in the '90s I think we need to make statements about society as a whole. Otherwise women's issues tend to become marginalised.
"With the Women's Circus we've been able to reach out to a very broad audience — it's the mums and dads as well as the alternative crowd — and I think it's because, while we talk about serious issues, we do it in a very positive way."
This year's production takes an often irreverent look at sport and its place in the Australian psyche. "The culture of sport and physicality is very strong in Australia, and traditionally it's been a very male ideal", Jackson says.
"It also tends to be dominated by the ideal of youth, and of the 'bronzed Aussie'. So we'll be looking at how women, particularly older women and those of non-English speaking background, fit into that ideal. We also look at how sport can be a metaphor for nationalism, and how competitiveness can work in a destructive way on the body."
The large-scale outdoor performance encompassing percussion, dance, voice, acrobatics, trapeze and fire-swinging, developed out of workshops conducted over the last 12 months by Sally Forth (formerly of Circus Oz and the Australian Dance Theatre). These workshops have concentrated on traditional circus skills, together with abseiling and routines borrowed from Chinese and Maori traditions. Original music composed by Sue Speer is integrated with live performance and samples of percussion and voice.
There will be only 11 performances, and last year's was a sell-out season with standing room only for the last performances, so early booking is advisable. Tickets are $13.50 and $9 concession. Bookings are through BASS on 11500.