Australian circus company Gravity & Other Myths believes that play and improvisation are the best learning tools. They proved integral to its formation and development, and remain essential to its shows Freefall and A Simple Space, which break down walls between artist and audience.
“We’ve all been doing circus since we were young whippersnappers,” says general manager and performer Triton Tunis-Mitchell, reached in Adelaide, GOM’s home base. “Australia has a strong reputation for youth and community circuses, and we were born out of the one here. In 2009—when most of the crew were 16 to 18—we decided to put on a show for the Adelaide Fringe Festival. We used the creation and touring of Freefall as a vehicle for learning about how the whole art and industry works. We didn’t have grand plans, it was very much a work to find our own identity—and won a bunch of awards.”
Growing up together in circus, the performers developed an intuitive knowledge of each other, both physically and psychologically. It gave them the complete confidence that’s crucial for any ensemble taking big risks.
“All of our training is about moving as one organism and understanding the patterns and the feel, and working the trust,” stresses Tunis-Mitchell. “We’re friends on-stage as well, so there’s no putting on the smiles. What we do is really an extension of our friendship. Our approach is very much a creative play, and we find the magic in the connection with the audience.”
A Simple Space is very much an up-close-and-personal experience. The rectangular performing area has spectators seated on three sides—a U-shaped configuration that focuses attention and, like the traditional circus ring, enables the audience to see itself. “Even the people who are 10 rows back can feel the excitement of being the person in the front row,” Tunis-Mitchell says.
A strong opening sequence very visibly brings home the value of trust and teamwork. With all the performers on-stage, each in turn—and seemingly haphazardly—calls out “Falling!” and then topples backwards like a felled tree. A colleague runs over and arrives just in time to make the catch before the toppler’s head hits the floor. “We put a lot of big skills at the start and try to play the game fresh each time, ” says Tunis-Mitchell. “Many circus shows begin soft and build up, whereas in A Simple Space we come out in a blaze of activity—then follow up with a skipping sequence to intentionally confuse the audience a bit as to our approach.”
To add to the intimacy and immediacy, all the sound and music accompanying the acrobats is made live on-stage by team member Elliot Zoerner. “We started without a musician in Freefall,” explains Tunis-Mitchell. “Elliot came in part of the way through that production. We had the choice either to press Play on a recorded track or to have someone who can accent all the skills and can time things to us. Being able to work with a musician both in the creative process and then on-stage fills all the gaps, and makes it very present, playful, and improvised in feel.”
As for equipment, there’s nothing in A Simple Space except a trapeze bar, and the only props are balloons, ropes, and plastic balls. “The focus is just on the bodies,” says Tunis-Mitchell. “It’s easy to put on a big persona and costume and razzle-dazzle, and kind of hide behind the skills. We put nothing in the space and push ourselves really, really hard to the point where you can’t put up a façade because you’re that tired, and you’ve focused that hard. Something interesting starts to appear. That’s what happened with A Simple Space—putting it in front of audiences, we’ve built it bit by bit. There’s a lot of sweat, a lot of breathlessness, and things that may not go right first time, but it’s all part of the fun.”
Gravity & Other Myths performs A Simple Space at the York Theatre October 13 to 24.