Circus 'as an artistic experience'

The Dust Palace performs at the Southland Arts Festival. Photos: Supplied
The Dust Palace performs at the Southland Arts Festival. Photos: Supplied
On their 10th anniversary, circus theatre company The Dust Palace is going from strength to strength. Rebecca Fox talks to its founders about how they tell a story.

It took Eve Gordon six months to be able to hang suspended upside down.

''I was never that physically brave. That seems so outrageous now,'' the experienced circus performer says.

She and Mike Edward founded The Dust Palace 10 years ago in Auckland after gathering a group of friends together to create a show for Auckland's first fringe festival.

''One was an improvised circus dance piece that 20 people saw and the other piece was a satirical look at burlesque as a form of entertainment, which sold out.''

The idea of using circus as an art form to tell stories ''stuck'' with the group and they have been putting on shows ever since.

At the time there was not much circus in Auckland and only a small circus culture in Christchurch and Wellington.

While contemporary circus was becoming a worldwide movement, it was taking its time getting to New Zealand despite Cirque du Soleil having been around for 30 years.

''There was this shift worldwide but we were 10 years behind,'' Gordon says.

Eva Gordon
Eva Gordon
It required a bit of a shift in thinking for people to realise you did not need to come from ''circus families'' to perform.

''People were starting to see the validity of it as an artistic experience as opposed to tricks and freaks.''

Gordon was the only one with any circus experience and the rest of the group were ''happy to get naked and do a show'', Edward says.

They soon fell in love with circus but the reality was performers were athletes who needed to train up to six hours a day, just like other sports people.

''We built up our skill set together and others came and trained with us,'' Edward says.

Mike Edward
Mike Edward
But by their third year they had to make the hard decision - should they select performers based on friendship or talent.

They chose talent, which turned out to be a ''marvellous'' decision in hindsight as it enabled the company to ''push forward''.

''Exceptional level of quality is one of our bottom lines,'' Edward says.

''We've still remained friends with our friends - we didn't compromise that,'' Gordon says.

As there wasn't much contemporary circus around they created their works in a ''bubble'', which turned out to be beneficial.

The couple, who both trained as actors - Edward is best known for his role as baddy Zac Smith on TV2's Shortland Street and Gordon has also appeared on Shortland Street and The Almighty Johnsons - naturally moved towards building narratives for their shows.

''That strong story version of circus is very unique, so it's cool that without much influence we have created something really distinctive,'' she says.

While they have created a number of shows over the past 10 years, they admit to ''making it up'' as they go along.

''There is no paint-by-numbers with this art form, so we've tried various ways of doing things - so every show we've done differently.''

They have borrowed tools from various art forms such as dance, drama and theatre.

''One thing that has become constant in any work we've done is the process to get a good production requires workshops, showings, then taking it apart, showing it again.

''It takes a long time. It doesn't take four weeks. We can spend a year and a-half gestating and growing something - we are constantly thinking ahead.''

As part of that they continued to develop works, even ones they had been performing for a few years.

''Nothing is ever finished.''

Doing that it kept the performers engaged and continually aspiring to be better.

Gordon continues to perform in the shows, and says she is becoming increasingly flexible and able to use her muscles in ways that had taken the ''hard yards'' to develop.

''I'm definitely getting better and stronger.''

Unfortunately, a shoulder injury has forced Edward to hang up his sparkly tights.

''I'm in my mid-40s - there comes a time when sparkly tights no longer suit you,'' he jokes.

They have learnt that part of the process requires letting go of fear of failure.

''Otherwise, you'll never get anything done. You treat it like a practice. Put it out there and if it doesn't really work, it will inform your next work.''

''Human'', the show they are bringing to Invercargill, is an example of such a show.

They had always avoided doing cabaret as it did not fit with their aspirations as a circus theatre group.

''We were all about making art, telling the story.''

But they mellowed a bit and when approached to do a piece in Palmerston North they decided adding a ''sparkly cabaret style'' show to their repertoire could be a good thing.

''It was quite fun. We decided to do a rock and roll cabaret, got Shane Cortese in, a rock guitar and blinging costumes.''

The Palmerston North audiences obviously thought so, the 2500-person venue selling out.

They realised the piece would be a good introduction to contemporary circus for places which had not been exposed to the genre before.

''It's positioned to fulfil that and give everyone a super good time.''

All the shows require their performers to be super fit and, as Edward likes to say, be like the All Blacks - prepare thoroughly and it will all right on the night.

''It takes years of preparation to get that good. There is no way around that.''

It could take four to five years for someone, even one with a gymnastic background, to become a proficient circus performer.

''Circus is unique as you need flexibility as well as strength - you have to be strong in all directions.''

That meant looking after their bodies and treating them carefully to ensure they didn't get injured.

But at the end of the day the rewards for the couple are in the audience reaction to their work.

It was all about getting the audience ''on board with you and know you are communicating with them, whatever the idea is, and knowing it is coming across and getting that emotional response'', he says.

For Gordon, one of those responses has stayed with her from a show in 2011 when a couple came up to her and said they were so inspired by the show they were going to try to have a child again.

Edward's favourite moment was in Montreal, the home of circus, where after performing a show they got a standing ovation and a reviewer described it as ''the next form of circus to take over the world''.

''That was a huge amount of validation for what we do,'' he says.

The company has struggled for similar validation in New Zealand because of the singularity of its work, he says.

After their trip south to perform they will return to Auckland to work on their second collaboration with the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra - a follow-up to a 2011 show which sold out.

To perform with a large live orchestra behind them is ''so much fun'', they say.

To see
‘‘Human’’, by Dust Palace, Southland Arts Festival, May 3, 6.45pm.

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