But the course of the epidemic has diverged in their respective host cities. The new outbreak and resulting lockdowns in Melbourne tells a tale of two circuses.
For Circa – the most popular and acclaimed of our circuses internationally – the first challenge of COVID-19 was to race its acrobats home before international borders closed. An extended season of Humans had just opened in Paris and another show in New Zealand had to be cancelled before it began.
With performers quarantined back in Brisbane, the company quickly decided to retain all employees at slightly reduced hours, many on JobKeeper. It focused on creative development, benefiting from Queensland’s smooth path towards a virtual elimination of the virus.
Most acrobatics require extensive (and strenuous) physical contact, so lockdown activities were initially limited to Zoom rehearsals and individual conditioning. “Then we moved into the studio and worked on solo acts socially distanced,” says Lifschitz. “About a month ago we got approval from Queensland Health to be working together without restriction.”
Circus Oz has lost $2 million since the start of the year and has little prospect of getting a social distancing exemption.
The company will perform a series of intimate solos and duets at the Brisbane Powerhouse in late July: one of five new shows now under development, with a major film project in the works, too. The company is collaborating on a performance installation set in a vacant opera house in Graz, Austria, later in July, to be performed by Austrian acrobats. Lifschitz has also started a podcast interviewing the “unsung heroes” of the performing arts – the creative producers who make shows happen.
Contrast that trajectory with Circus Oz, which has lost $2 million since the start of the year and has little prospect of getting a social distancing exemption in the immediate future.
“Here in Melbourne we’re on the second spike of COVID, so just when we thought we were getting a sense of clarity, that’s spun around on us,” says Penny Miles.
The company’s base in Collingwood – a purpose-built circus training and rehearsal facility with the adjoining Melba Spiegeltent performance venue – has been mothballed until 2021.
Like Circa, Circus Oz has kept its performers, all of whom have specialised skills – but the “JobKeeper cliff” looms in September and that has Miles nervous. Meanwhile, the acrobats have had to improvise, training outside in parks and gardens to observe COVID restrictions.
During its “hibernation”, Circus Oz is focusing on research and development and has initiated the “skunkworks” management style beloved of tech giants – a streamlined, out-of-the-box process geared to radical innovation. (Aptly, the original Skunk Works project, which invented the world’s first fighter jet, started in a circus tent pitched outside the headquarters of Lockheed Martin during WWII.)
Don’t expect a wholesale digital migration of circus, though. “It’s a terrible substitute for live performance,” says Miles. “And I’ve been really cautious about going into that space.”
Cirque du Soleil’s bankruptcy may have a silver lining for Australian circus.
“Audiences are just as much part of the experience as the artist. Circus is a community hive of emotion – laughter, enjoyment, sadness – whatever’s happening we all feed off it. We don’t have to pipe through spectator sounds just so it feels okay on screen.”
Cirque du Soleil’s bankruptcy may have a silver lining for Australian circus. Laid-off elite acrobats have been forced to return to their countries of origin, and Australia is a net exporter of talent.
Circa is currently advertising for new ensemble members, for the first time hiring only Australian citizens and permanent residents. “Most of our acrobats – 80 to 90 per cent are Australian anyway,” Lifschtiz says. “But our artists must be able to live and work here. With restrictions on international travel, that’s become a necessity.”
Both Lifschitz and Miles are optimistic about the long-term prospects of circus.
“Circus’s superpower is that it doesn’t bore… it’s thrilling and exciting,” Lifschitz says. “Our dramaturgy is the dramaturgy of the audience’s heartbeat. And the response that we’re getting from presenters is that people are going to want to be excited, to be entertained by the promise of coming back to the theatre.”
He notes that Circa found international success pursuing loftier theatrical ambitions.
“There’s a great hunger for entertainment at the moment,” Lifschitz says, “but for me, it’s imperative to push the artistic elements of what we do more than the ‘great show’ elements.”
“We need solace and comfort and I’ve been working under a Gerhard Richter quote: ‘Art is the highest form of hope.’ It’s really stuck with me.”