rob tannion a model citizen

On World Circus Day 2016. TAGG interviewed Rob Tannion, who at the time was on the eve of taking on his new role as artistic director of Circus Oz, we spoke about his childhood in Queensland, his career as it progressed across Europe, then coming full circle with his return to Australia.

A year later he has made his directorial debut for Circus Oz storming the east coast then triumphantly premiering in Melbourne last month with Model Citizens. A performance as much about the individual returning home, as it is about the collective dealing with their identity. It keeps the trademark showmanship of the company in play, but brings them very much into the present moment- timely, as the company celebrates four long decades in the game next year. 

Rob took time out from the companies busy schedule to talk once more with TAGG, reflecting on the year that was, the genesis for this latest work, fluidity in performance and how Australia has changed in recent years.

Rob lets kick things off, how has the past year treated you? 

It’s been a tough first year, I have had to propose a lot of big changes in the company, but they have been well embraced. Personally, I got fatter, I have put on weight because i am less physically active, which is unusual for me. It’s been really interesting to come into a company that does have a great history and trying to understand it has been interesting and challenging for me a big learning curve, and you know reconnecting with my nasal Australian roots. It also comes with a big sense of loss, I guess I spent the last twenty years of my professional career in Europe, so it feels like I have had to start a new.

You have a strong background in dance, which is very much evident in Model Citizens, how was it introducing dance into the world of circus? 

I felt that I couldn’t negate my past experience, so you hit the nail on the head, it’s a choreographic eye, more attention to detail and timing. And timing that sits with the musicality, there a lot of details that some people wouldn’t notice but would drive me absolutely nuts. I’m definitely interested in there being more of a choreographic eye but elements of physical theatre and musicals too, depending on what show and whether is relevant.

The majority of this cast who were in this ensemble were new to Circus Oz and not been involved in the Circus Oz process before. I believe sometimes its difficult when you are offering up different things that people except them, and part of that challenge is how you want your aesthetic vision to be implemented on stage. At the beginning of the process we did do dance classes, the performers where all really hungry for it. But then we kind of got to a point when we realised, ok we got to get the circus happening now.

One of the first choice you made, was to tour the work before opening here in Melbourne, how did this come about?

So I was interested in making sure the show was as strong as it could be, before it hit Melbourne. I think Melbourne is a really important season so its vital to come in with a strong show and it was a really robust decision. The show has really benefited from three months of modification and tweaking along the way.

There are some darker moments that are found in Model Citizens, lets talk more about them,

We all unpack certain things, and there are certain things that unpack themselves, a show lives and breathes its own life really. We didn’t want to shy away from dark moments in the show, it gives it light and texture. There has been a moment when someone asked if domestic violence was an issue, but in the creative process it was never something we talked about nor commented on. But then perhaps a moment in the juggling could be read as (being about) domestic violence.

On the flip side, all though it wad not an intentional thing to talk about things like domestic violence, if it provokes a conversation then we are in a great place.

Circus Oz have a long history of performance, what traditions are you wishing to see continue and how would you like to see the company evolve? 

So things I really love, I love the flexibility of live music on stage, but not just the flexibility  its also visual to see, hear and feel some one playing music. How we choose to do this can be dressed in many ways, so I’m keen on maintaining that into the future. Things to expect are different shows both in size and in tone. Later this year I will be directing a show a called The Strange and Unusual Lives of Otto and Astrid and thats a collaboration and we are going to make a small five person ensemble. The show is a biographical look at their lives from being two children in Germany through to becoming the greatest band in the world; if you want to put a frame on it,  its a silly dark and gothic journey. With tonnes of live music and people playing multiple characters it will be vastly different from what you would see in the big top format. What i would like is to expect the unexpected, yes it will be Circus Oz but it won’t be formulatic, and I’m not saying the shows are fumaltic but in terms of a big top show with the expiation that it is a two hour show with and interval. This is a punk rock opera more suited to a smaller venue.

Getting back to Model Citizens, what was your inspiration?

So the inspiration for the show, as with all things, was quite complex, but it was very inspired by me wanting to look at what it means to be a model citizen. After being away from Australia for so long there is a moment of self reflection questioning “do I fit in” but I was also really interested in looking for a world that was quite visual and interesting, and with the oversized props, I didn’t want to reinvent but re-look at circus props.

I asked how can we could play with scale and perception, because in a way that was an underlying  theme that runs through the show; when we question how we fit in, we also question scale and proportion. I am really interested in those things as a spring board.

Being out of Australia and coming back and trying to fit in really gave me an insight into what its like to be an outsider. I’ve spent twenty years being an outsider in other peoples cultures and being a foreigner, and I wanted to convey a little bit of that in show. But definitely coming back and reconnecting with Australian humour the ludicrousness of it and how it’s a little self deprecating. I thought that (our humour) was never understood when I have been overseas and made shows, people think its funny, but don’t quite get it. Returning has been a bit of a moment of just breathing out, knowing that people understand what I am trying to get at here.

And has Australia changed all that much since you left? 

It’s an interesting question, because its not just the country that has changes its you as well. There has been a lot of development in terms of talking about and recognising how we treat and care for our First Nations People, the Welcome to Country that happens on our gala never existed when I left. Im really proud that has begun, but I’m sad that more hasn’t been done in that area of Australian culture.

I also thought it would have been bigger, I forgot that there are so few people in Australia. Melbourne is the cultural capital of Australia and you think there is a lot happening, but then you realise that there’s not that much happening at all. In Europe on an hours flight you can be in London or Berlin, there is so much happening  and there are so many people. There is a sense that we are on the other side of the world, and with that is also a sense of isolation, but thats a good thing, like “fuck it we can do what we want”.

Australia, in the circus world, is renowned for our strength and the work that we create, I’m really happy to be a part of this and to be carrying on a bit of that legacy with Circus Oz.

Indeed there are some exciting times ahead for Circus Oz as their focus broadens and they continue to challenge the status quo through performance that should continue to further blur the lines between form and function. Model Citizens is currently playing at Birrarung Mar under the Circus Oz Big Top, it’s a thrilling experience and one that comes highly recommended, for more info or to book your tickets click here