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It was in 1978, that Soapbox and New Circus met, joining forces they would later become Circus Oz. After more than three decades of wowing audiences, both locally and abroad, the company holds a special place in the hearts of many a Melbournian. It could be for their high octane shows or simply for the distinct Aussie bent they place on the traditional. Each year, as the weather gets cooler and winter takes it hold of the city, the company brings people out of hibernation, flocking to see their shows presented under the big top at Birrarung Marr. 

Jessi Lewis met with their newly appointed artistic director Rob Tannion ahead of International Circus Day, they spoke about the new directions, the role of art, challenging the status quo and what makes Melbourne such a hive of creativity… 

So Rob what is about is circus that draws you to the art form? 

Circus, it always has a wow factor because it plays with risk, plays with physical risk and real risk, whether that’s calculated risk or not, its still about making the impossible possible. The things we don’t expect people and the human body to be able to do, circus performers are able to do that, able to make us laugh able to wow us with physical prowess. I love that it has a very broad appeal in terms of audience, it has a massive appeal.

Circus Oz in particular has the knack of making things high octane and very athletic and physical, there a real larrikin side to it and its sometimes is not so politically correct “did they just say that” and I think that’s the kind of things we need now, we need to maintain that in the arts or entertainment. I mean where does circus fall is it art or entrainment that’s another good one.

Becoming the Artistic Director of a company like Circus Oz is obviously not something that happens over night, lets talk about your background and your creative journey thus far?

I’m a Brisbane boy, originally trained in dance and decided I’d just nip to Europe, then 23 years later I’m back here. My artistic trajectory really looks at and was really exposed to dance and physical theatre, I was core member of dv8 Physical Theatre in London for quite a few years, I’ve worked with big scale musicals in London, I went off to China to be an acrobatic director on musicals.

But the big question was how the hell did I get into circus? It was kind of one of those things that was destined to be “Did the circus find me, or did I find circus?” I was invited to a project about 11 years ago, it was called What If, and it was in Bristol. They invited eleven companies, small to medium, dramaturges, choreographers and creators, all wanting to see what we could offer back to the community. I got there and just spent two weeks with very diverse people and shows, and I was like “This is what I have been missing”. Also, I think at that point in time the art form was very hungry for change and creative growth.

You’ve mentioned previous work in physical theatre and dance, what have these skills allowed you to achieve when working with circus?

I guess my background with dance and physical theatre really offered me a new way of looking at circus, contemporary circus and circus direction. I’ve done quite a lot of shows now where I’m only directing circus, I hardly touch dance at all. But my work does have a very choreographic eye, its very visual, its very physical and I do like it to have some sort of theme based narrative, or a topic to explore.

Its not necessarily text based either, all though I will use text. I guess I will use what ever scenic elements are needed to create a good show, a great show.

Are there any darker subjects that inspire you to create work, and how do you feel these sit within the broader context of circus?

 I made a show in Madrid, in 2009 which was called Mary Crisis, it looked at domestic violence. I also made a show in Mexico, it was borderline political. The government there has quite a lot of power and the people are very un-empowered and don’t stand up for themselves, so there where a lot of issues we where looking at but through circus.

We can also provoke, the great thing with humour is, there a lot of hard topics, hard issues, we kind of as society slightly skirt around many times and don’t really look at. Humour is this great springboard or medium for us.

There’s a line in this Twentysixteen I love; someone turns around and says to Dale, who is our indigenous performer “What do you know about entitlement?”  It’s just one throw away line, but all of a sudden in that pause straight after it, you go “Hang on, is that a common thought?”

It was really interesting, as a kid, I spent a lot of time in the country, most of my friends growing up were indigenous kids, I obviously I learnt a lot about racism there; people asking “Why are you hanging out with them” I was like “Well hang on, they’re my mates”.

Do you believe that taking circus out of the city, and into regional communities, is something which companies should look towards as a core focus?

I think when you have artistic groups, and I don’t want to say stuck outback, but, well you feel like in those moments, those artistic choices are limited. It’s now really good being an artistic director, because I can ask what are we doing for regional touring? Where are we going, and if we can’t go there how else can we reach out?

Regional connection is important; we’ve got to do it. If some one had changed my life, I count it down to a drama teacher who really inspired me, I’ve been searching for that same guy for years, just to go “You know what, you changed the course of my life” and if we can do that for just one person then its all worth it.

Let’s talk about Melbourne, it’s an amazing city, but what is it about this place you most strongly identify?

I really love Melbourne because it feels like a very creative city, has a very European feel, so for me to transition back to Australia, there’s something like three million people here so for me it feels really small, after ten million fourteen million or Mexico city twenty two million people, it has a great creative vibe I feels there a lot of people really pushing the boundaries artistically, right here in the city but also nationally and internationally, its really exciting place to be.

Circus Oz will present Twentysixteen- opening on the 15th of June, at Birrarung Mar, descried as a “Refreshing cocktail of new and old, innovation and tradition” and promises “Two hours of high-voltage acrobatics and explosive aerial antics” with “Turbo charged acrobats that have ben training like crazy to bring wizardry to the flying trapeze”- how could you go wrong? Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here