A GLIMPSE INTO THE AUSTRALIAN CIRCUS FESTIVAL
The Australian Circus Festival has just completed it’s 4th attempt. This was more than twice the dimension of the 3rd attempt in 2017. The brainchild of Jasmine Straga an internationally respected teacher, choreographer, and mentor of solo contortionists and aerialists. She is from an artistic gymnastics background and shifted into circus and performed for ten years in some of Mexico’s largest circuses before returning to Australia and starting JS Creations and founding this festival.
Jasmine has the moral support of numerous circus schools of which there are an abundance throughout Australia. These schools have a hidden precedence. For many decades Australia had more ballet schools per capita than anywhere else in the world. The homebred Aussie dancers were members in leading ballet and dance companies in the Western World. That included the Rockhampton trained Benjamin sisters of the Royal Ballet. Circus schools appear to be superseding or at least matching that history of ballet and dance schools’ popularity here.
The Australian Circus Festival has appeared along with this zeitgeist as a sign of the times. The World Federation of Circus Festivals includes this new member, particularly as the result of the success of Jasmine’s advanced students who come to her from a variety of nations. The festival follows her breadth of inclusivity with participation welcomed and provided for circus artists from community, social, special needs as well as pre-professional and professional divisions.
So the festival has a great humanitarian feeling and palpable energy which transcends the performing arts. It has the wow and warmth factors that were the backbone of circus’ ancient and continuing popularity. The festival is as much international as it is interstate. International includes the cousins across the Tasman - Flip n Fly Circus of Auckland, as well as the closer yet islander siblings in Tasmania inclusive of Circ’s Cool Circus school of tiny Launceston. Flip n Fly and Circ’s Cool Circus are both led by highly experienced tent circus touring professionals.
This brings us to another interesting factor of this contemporary circus festival. This festival is strongly, actively, and practically supported by generations established circus families. Last festival and this festival the Lennon Family provided the tents and all variety of necessary equipment including rigging, winches, seating, lights, as well as employed backstage expert crew who were fully assisted by a plethora of capable volunteers some of whom are experienced in circus and some of whom just had a total immersion working 14 hour days eight days in a row. The festival has the pleasant ‘can-do’ spirit, as well as, ‘I think we might just be able to squeeze it in, so let’s give it a go’ esprit de corps.
Not to single out individuals as there is no doubt it was a team effort of around 50 or 60 people working long hours including the sleep deprived ensemble as well as Jasmine. She was ably assisted by Claire Reincastle of Circus Akimbo. However, without a number of team leaders and their essential assistants such a homegrown personally financed festival could not eventuate. The Operations Manager was 5th generation circus artist Shane Lennon. He and Nancy Lennon of Hudson’s Circus are total hands on leaders who were often seen lifting, carrying, pulling. Not only pulling up the flying trapeze net but also pulling expresso coffees in the festival canteen.
Other leaders included 5th generation circus artist Carlo Urban who was born into the Hungarian Urban family. Carlo ran his state-of-art winch for eight different artistic programs which included multiple dozens of aerial acts. Importantly, also, artistically this festival had one of the most wonderful circus festival directors, from Switzerland, Patrick Rosseel. Patrick worked for Schweizer National Circus Knie for 24 years, as well as a number of the largest European circus festivals including Cirque de Monte Carlo. Jasmine and Shane explained that Patrick also worked tirelessly long hours as full program rehearsals started early in the morning and the working days included two performances per day. The two ‘in-between’ days were dawn through evening rehearsal and technical processes. Further, they noted that Patrick was a highly disciplined ‘captain’ and taskmaster who had a vision that ensured the integrity of the each showcase and the festival as a whole as the Stage and Artistic Director.
The eight programs included approximately 150 acts from numerous schools including Avion Aerials and Circus Arts, circus families including Ludwig Schukin and his children, and individuals. So please forgive that I can only mention a few within this short narrative, a glimpse. Although the majority of acts were solos and duets, there were also numerous team and large group acts. There were over 300 performers. This included youths who are 7th generation of circus families as well as numerous artistes performing for their first time in a big top tent.
The Juries were from a pool of about 20 people. That included overseas guests; Valentina Savina of the Moscow Circus School; Zsuzsanna Mata Executive Director of Federation Mondiale du Cirque; Betty Butler - Co-Founder of Circus Juventas; Stacy Clark - Casting Director, Sourcing and Recruitment for Cirque du Soleil; Rongquan Xie Wuqiao International Circus Festival; Bayarsaikhan Odonchimeg of Flip n Fly. There were a variety of Australian Jury members. Several were from long established circus families and those included; Bekki Ashton, Dante Ashton-Harrison; Schantel Kathriner; Craig Bullen, There was also a Jury team comprised of youths including 7th generation Rikki Ashton-Harrison.
Naturally, there was a huge variety of acts including outstanding artistes of the Fujian Troupe of China, and, one artiste originally from Cirkus Smirkus in the USA.
More than those who happened to win the variety of prizes it appeared every day that this festival is a winning formula in international and interstate collaboration through participation. Jasmine and Shane explained that their main assistants had to wear multiple hats and jump in when needed, so in a practical way they both said they really each needed three more assistants. In other words, a substantial grant or grants or sponsorship is now required for the next stages of their vision. Also assisting in a variety of ways were Ashton Family members such as Tanya, Bekki, and Jessie who besides being one of the world’s greatest cascadeurs - a clown specialising in acrobatic falls - he was essential to help with the complex lighting that Patrick established.
There were several Lifetime Achievement Awards given to Lorraine Ashton Grant and Gary Grant, Robert and Bernice Perry, Frank Gasser. Another day such an award was given to legendary clown and former tumbler of The Seven Ashtons, Dougie, and Sally Ashton. It happened that in addition to Dougie the other of Australia’s senior most clowns Gary Grant also visited this day. I could not believe that finally after decades of living in Australia I could go and chat with both Dougie and Gary at the same time. Accompanying me was the clown, aerialist, dancer, whip-cracker Amanda-Lyn Pearson of The Crackup Sisters.
When we got to Dougie, Gary, Sally, over walked Pixi Robinson who was a former risley, trapeze flyer, and musician, who also had been the first Artistic Director of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus. Pixi has also long been a key admin and publicity person for circuses and this festival. Then as we we all began to chat, Carlo Urban came over, quite shyly to greet Dougie and Sally who he had not seen since he was 9 years old when they were all in Frank Gasser’s Circus Royale.
In addition to Carlo operating the winch mentioned earlier and running the performances technically on the ground and backstage, he also appeared, as a technician to assist the exceptional clown Walison Muh. Carlo had about 8 quick entrances into Walison’s balloon version of the William Tell Gag. The gag Chaplin does with his lifetime colleague Henry Bergman in a film The Circus of 1928. The timing between Walison and Carlo was utterly impeccable and funny and included perfected ‘real’, authentic comic pratfalls. After congratulating Walison, I then sought Carlo to congratulate him and to find out more about his background. Ever so humbly he answered my curiosity and yes as a child with his family he learned and performed their classic clown routines and as he matured he also was in their Knockabout acrobatic acts. The five generations, that is over 100 years of circus means that he like others of such families, are filled with a deep knowledge, embodied in their bones and spirit.
Jasmine has mentored a number of her students through related festivals into their first full circus contracts, knows very well, performance awards can help. As she explained professional footage from each showcase is a most excellent tool which the agents and circus owners appreciate i.e. a live performance with audience reactions, in a tent, with professional stage lighting. Yet, everyone at the festival seems to support the altruistic side of circus i.e. ‘let’s put on the best possible show’ under present circumstances. The word ‘circumstances’ my teacher Carlo from Italy pronounced as ‘circus-stanzas’.
The ‘circus-stanzas’ of the final program titled the Pre-Professional Program had several highlights, here are a few. There happened to be one of the most beautiful, elegant, artistic straps solos I have ever seen. That was by Christopher Frances Bate, a multi-skilled acrobat from Flip N Fly. Also in this final showcase was a superb static trapeze duet by Moira Campbell and Rosilani Mordaunt of Spaghetti Circus. Like Bates’ act this duet was fully ready for an international circus. Another static trapeze duet had a bit of ‘static’ with the timing of their winch. Suddenly in the circus it was a real drama, very real theatre. There was a technical miscue early in the performance. The ‘boss’ artist signalled for the trapeze and duet to be lowered. She walked over calmly, with clarity, and purpose. Truly beyond what we see when aerialists try to ‘act’ or ‘stylise’ clarity and purpose. This was notably different, totally real. She very briefly called the shots to the crew and MC and let them know ‘We’ll start again’. The duet exited. Behind the curtain. The MC announced the act. The curtains opened. The act was flawless and elegant. That duet was Isobel Moore and Jeanli Pelletier.
One more event, also under extenuating ‘circus-stanzas’, also wowed the audience and Jury, but, no viewer knew the back story. It happened to be that I presented their Gold Award. In the duet was a powerful small performer we had seen in previous days in two other outstanding aerial acts, a quartet, then a solo. This static trapeze duet was very advanced technically and artistically and in performance. It was only one of two mixed doubles aerial acts of the festival. The other, a theatrical duo straps act, was one of Juventas outstanding acts they brought to Australia.
Now with this static trapeze act I asked ‘take me to your leader’ i.e. could I meet your coach. It was Schantel Kathriner of Circ’s Cool. Schantel then informed me of the drama behind this act. The afore mentioned ‘powerful small performer’, Jemaliye Aykiran, had another young male partner for a different aerial duet, but he got injured. So, Jemaliye asked Schantel to help her make another duet. This new duet was created with a wonderful young man, Leuka Robson, who we had seen in another act. However, he and Little Miss Powerful had never worked together although they are both students of Schantel. In just over a week, the three of them put together this outstanding act. Extraordinary. The Jury never knew the story, but was impressed simply with what they saw and awarded this act the Gold Award. Schantel then introduced me to her 11 year old daughter, Mia Carroll, who in the first showcase of the week performed her own creation. That was an homage to her grandfather, the great circus-man Rene Kathriner who Passed Away one year ago. Mia’s acrobatic act had a background slide show throughout of her Grandfather’s photos from his enormous array of circus acts..
To conclude, in circus the adage is true that ‘everything old is new again’. There is no doubt that the circus evolution is not new even though it is clearly evolving in a variety of directions. There was a vast network of community circus, acrobatic and slapstick classes nationwide in the USA well established by the 1920s. Those circus classes were run at the YMCA’s. That was at the tail end of Vaudeville and during a time when the USA had about 200 touring tent circuses.
The more broad circus programs going all the way up to flying trapeze and high wire included from 1950 the Wenatchee Youth Circus on the West Coast. On the East Coast there was from 1947 FSU-Flying High Circus; from 1949 the Sarasota Sailor’s Circus. Cirkus Smirkus from 1987. Co-Director of Juventas, Betty, began in the Sailor’s Circus. But the most revolutionary school was the Moscow Circus School established in 1927 and extended to create exemplary schools throughout the Soviet and former Soviet empire. That led to there being 100 circus buildings in the USSR. France’s Annie Fratellini and Pierre Etaix established École Nationale du Cirque in 1975.
Shane Lennon, and others of the long established circus families are seeing a clear development and growing interest from young adults coming from the various youth circuses who would like to ‘run away and join the circus’ olde school style in a tent. Part of the dream, fantasy, hope, vision of The Australian Circus Festival according to Jasmine and Shane, is that there can be a meeting ground, a ‘corroboree’ if you will, where the different factions of the hugely varied worlds of circus can come together as a ‘broad church’ community of diversity and share in the common cause of joy and betterment of societies.
Written by Ira Seidenstein
Official Industry Awards:
Lifetime Achievement Awards:
•Doug & Sally Ashton
•Robert Perry and Bernice Perry
•Gary Grant & Lorraine Ashton Grant
•Robert Perry and Bernice Perry
•Gary Grant & Lorraine Ashton Grant
Federation Mondale du Cirque (Awarded by Zsuzsanna Mata):
•John LeMare for his contribution to the global circus industry
Australian Circus Federation (Awarded by Pepe Ashton):
•John LeMare for his long-standing contribution to the Australian Circus Industry.
Young Indigenous Circus Artist of 2019:
Indigenous Circus Artist of 2019
Sabu Award for Advocating Classical Circus with animals:
•Mrs Zelie Bullen
Animal Welfare Award 2019
•Kelly Maynard of Circus Eronis.
•Best Contemporary Circus Director 2019: •Natano Fa'anana Photo is Walison MuhDirector