The art of the acrobat

The team from Werk It love live performances, where they push their bodies to the limit. PHOTO:...
The team from Werk It love live performances, where they push their bodies to the limit. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
The Dunedin Arts Festival launched its programme earlier this week and it features international guests for the first time since Covid-19 hit.  Rebecca Fox talks to one of them - Australian circus performer Malia Walsh.

Malia Walsh was one of those children who was always jumping off things, looking for attention and acting out.

"I was destined for a life of crime or the performing arts - it was performing arts for me. Although it is not as lucrative, to be fair, it’s definitely more rewarding," she jokes.

She is coming to Dunedin for the first time as part of the Dunedin Arts Festival’s Werk It circus acrobatic show by Victorian-based Circus Trick Tease.

More comfortable being thrown into the air by strong people or hanging from a trapeze than doing almost anything else, Welsh has been performing and directing for 16 years.

"I started off with a little show written on a napkin in a bar and we put that on and won two awards off our very first season and it’s just grown from there."

Walsh started her circus career by touring through Asia with Pyroptix circus company before co-founding Circus Trick Tease in 2008. Its first, self-titled, show won three awards, and she produced two sell-out Adelaide seasons, a regional national tour and two tours of the United Kingdom.

"Six shows have toured around the world. It’s an exciting career - we’ve gone from making adult shows to late-night cabaret to children’s shows and then back to adult shows again."

"We love circus because of the pressure you put on your body. There is nothing more exciting than standing on someone’s head or doing a dance on the trapeze above an audience. It’s exhilarating and exciting, the best form of activity and the best way of keeping fit."

She continues producing shows, including award-winning children’s works Children are Stinky, ’Straya, Can’t Face and Brass Monkeys.

Malia Walsh lives for circus performance. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Malia Walsh lives for circus performance. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

"They’re all really ridiculous and fun with music. Stinky’s to ’90s music, all very tongue in cheek, and after the shows all the grown-ups ask for more of this. After listening to all the ’90s music you just want to bounce about and do workout stuff. "

A few years ago, as a season with Circus Oz came to an end, Walsh and five friends decided they wanted to keep working together - so they got their creative juices flowing, coming up with Werk It, a show that is equal parts comedy and acrobatics.

"It’s about how much we love working out. It’s a celebration of working, blue collar nine-to-fiver, the tradie - we do a tribute to the tradie where I end up on a beer keg swinging from the roof. With all those workout tracks there is plenty of Spandex, high-cut G-string leotards, that are fabulous and fun to perform in."

The show debuted at Adelaide’s 2020 Fringe Festival.

"It was terrible timing really [due to Covid-19] but the show has so much excitement and energy we got so many bookings even during the pandemic. Everything was up against it."

Despite the timing it hit a note and the show is still being booked today.

"It’s the best show I’ve ever made. I’ve never made a show before that gets nightly standing ovations like Werk It. People wear the T-shirts and the wrist bands. It’s an exciting time to be a performer."

For Walsh, who can only just remember ’90s music, the soundtrack alone makes the show worth seeing.

"I was very young but I do love the ’90s."

A highlight was having the Umbilical Brothers, an Australian comedy duo, come to their show at the International Comedy Festival and say how funny they thought they were.

"To go toe to toe with the best comedians at the festival ... It’s a love of comedy and of acrobatics that has led the show to its success."

PHOTO: SUPPLIED
PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Keeping fit is essential to being able to perform safely and without injury, Walsh says.

"We are obsessed with working out. Our training regime is epic, everyone needs a six-pack. We do 10 minutes of ab crunches before a show to keep fit. It’s incredibly high-calibre acrobatics so we have a training regime that rivals some of the professional footballers."

She admits as circus performers you have to give away any shyness you may have.

"If you need to catch someone before they fall by their butt, that is what you’ll do - there is no modesty in the circus."

Their measures to prevent accidents have so far worked, but Walsh knows accidents do happen. There have been some horrific circus accidents over the years, generally because of stunts where performers have fallen badly, even if not from a great height.

"If you get an injury as a circus performer it’s six months off the job, so we are hyper-conscious and super-careful; we train really hard to do things as safely as possible. You are hyper-vigilant."

Malia Walsh and fellow circus performer Chris Carlos.
Malia Walsh and fellow circus performer Chris Carlos.

However, that risk is also part of the attraction for the audience as they see the tension, focus and control of the acrobats as they hold each other up.

"It’s exciting to watch, like a car race. We push that to the limit. There’s the slapstick as well - it’s a good time."

Then there is the behind-the-scenes wrangling of 12 people, costumes, lighting and music, not to mention the constant creative fine-tuning.

"All you see on stage is the bright colours, the best bits of 12 weeks of rehearsal or whatever time we had to make it."

The Covid-19 lockdown only reinforced Welsh’s love of the circus as she missed the trust and "intense relationship" the circus performers have together.

"I realised how much I needed it, for my sanity and joy - my day-to-day workout was part of trusting those people and having a lovely time working out with colleagues and friends."

The touring lifestyle had meant her children had spent a lot of their lives catching buses, boats and trains around the world.

"They’ve spent a month in Switzerland, another in far north Queensland - they’ve had a fun life, but it is a balance; nothing is normal. They do their homework on the tour bus. It’s challenging and fun."

Last week Welsh had a week at home in regional Victoria to catch up on paperwork.

"It feels like an exciting holiday; it’s so different to be home."

Circus Trick Tease has two other shows being toured at present - Brass Monkey, about kids marching to their own beat, and Children are Stinky, an interactive comedy.

Walsh has another show in the pipeline, incorporating a lot of aerial work and flying trapeze.

The inspiration and ideas come from joint sessions with her fellow performers.

PHOTO: SUPPLIED
PHOTO: SUPPLIED
"I’ve an incredible team, the best performers I’ve ever worked with. There’s endless ideas popping out; we’re exploding with new exciting, ridiculous, hilarious concepts every week - along the lines of ‘Do you think you can do a handstand on my butt?’."

Despite the diverse talents of Lisa Lottie, who can spin eight hula hoops at the same time, strongwoman Cassia Jamieson, who can hold three people above her head, juggler Richard Sullivan and acrobat Vincent van Berkel, Walsh knows all the performers complement each other .

"Our performers are like the Spice Girls - everybody has such a different flavour. Everyone has something incredible about them. That is what makes it so fun."

Friendship is key, she says.

"After performances instead of going our separate ways we go back and cook dinner together. I’m incredibly fortunate at the joy and friendship we have working together. I count my blessings every day."

To see
Dunedin Arts Festival October 12-24. 

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