Australian company Casus Circus is over in the UK at the moment with their show Driftwood. I have been dying to see the show ever since hearing all the buzz from the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and last Wednesday went along to interview Shannon Vitali and Jon Bonaventura ahead of watching the evening performance at Underbelly. Walking along the Southbank, circus music floated through the air, notes from Barnum coming from the merry-go-round, the siren call of "Come follow the band". Quite.
The first billboard I registered was even more alluring. Briefs. The infamous Australian all-male circus cabaret. I learned later that one of the poster boys is the brother of one of the founders of Casus. I threaded my way down the wooden walkways that have the familiar Coney Island carney vibe, which set me off daydreaming - Look! There's the other Wizards of Oz, Head First Acrobats, over with zombie bromance Elixir (a must see!), and kids show Arr We There Yet; another Australian, the fab Jess Love from La Soiree, with her one-woman show I saw at Jacksons Lane last year; Natalie Alison is back with family show Jungle Book; Alula Cyr, well I'm seeing their show Hyena next week; comedian Mark Dolan, who interviewed Polefit London's Anna Milosevic on the radio a while back and... I'm stalling. I don't really want to hit the Spiegeltent. I mean, I do want to meet Shannon and Jon, but I'm a bit nervous. I have little experience doing interviews and the last thing I want to do is waste the time of performers on a blistering hot day when they could be chilling.
I arrived to find Shannon and Jon, open faces, big smiles, very cute sitting in a wooden dodgem in front of the Spiegeltent. I clambered in to join them, momentarily distracted by another member of the company wandering close by, casually whipping off his top and stretching out in the sunshine. And to think I had passed off this afternoon as "work" to justify my husband picking the kids up from school...
Both Shannon and Jon are flyers, both in terms of being aerialists flying around and having the slender frame required for being the "flyer" on top in acrobatic tricks.
Shannon trained in dance, all styles, and then moved on to NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) in Melbourne, and has worked all over the world, on cruise ships, with Circa, and met Casus through the open call for auditions. In the bio I read she was billed as the aerial hoop (also known as a lyra) artist in the show, but in reality, Shannon, and all the cast, are multi-faceted and turn their hand to pretty much anything. That in part is the product of the Australian philosophy about circus training that encourages students to be excellent all-rounders rather than focussing at an earlier stage on one specific discipline, rather like the circus equivalent of the broader International Baccalaureate as opposed to the UK's A-level system. At NICA Shannon specialised in contortion, adagio (partner work), aerial acrobatics and risley. That's foot-juggling right? I asked, picturing Shannon flat on her back in a spangled leotard, twirling umbrellas with her toes. They fell about laughing. Er, not quite Lucy. It turns out that risley is human foot juggling, as in Shannon is the object being juggled by the feet. OK. Wow!
Jon is a gymnast who developed a taste for the performing arts at 12 when he was spotted doing back flips in a friend's backyard and brought in as the stunt double in Warner Bros "Where the Wild Things Are", carrying on with his stunt training until old enough to join NICA as well, a couple of years below Shannon. There he gravitated towards aerial rope, primarily because he is small and strong and no-one else wanted to (rope burns, circus hurts), and joined the Circa family after graduation. He happened to see the Casus show one day, and in a case of being in the right place and the right time (again!), was invited on board for Driftwood.
I was surprised to hear there were only three other performers in the cast. Given how much I had heard about Driftwood, I had somehow imagined a larger cast and I was excited to hear that it would be a much more intimate affair. The family also comprises Sarah McDougall, both base, hula-hoopist and a regular clown (including workshops, for instance, with Ira Seidenstein see post - click here), the same year at NICA as Shannon; David Trappes, who I thought had something of Canadian Eric Bates (see post - click here) about him, which was funny as it turned out he is a juggler (though not in the show - he bases) and has spent time training over in École de Cirque in Quebec; and Johnny Brown, the youngest member, straight from dance school in his first ever circus show, quite extraordinary. The London crew are living together in a couple of flats in Shoreditch. Girls in one flat, boys in another? More laughter. No, it turns out they are split circus-style between bases and flyers. Of course!
We talked about the show. Funnily enough, coming direct from the National Circus in Old Street earlier that day (down the road from where they are staying) I had seen a banner "we are only individuals in the context of each other" and that reminded me of the flotsam and jetsam of human connections at the heart of the Driftwood philosophy. The dynamic between the performers grows organically - the choreography is not improvised per se, but there may be little quirks or energy that bounces off the audience, as much as the artists themselves, that ensures that each performance is unique. I wondered about the weather as well. So hot and sweaty on a day like today, does that make performing trickier? Then Jon and Shannon gently reminded that they do hail from Australia... Doh! More laughter.
What do you love about doing the show, I wondered? Both Shannon and Jon love the fact that they have the opportunity to use a variety of skills, and learn new ones, like the hula-hooping or Jon's balancing on the head perch. But above all they relish the opportunity to be genuinely themselves and convey authentic moments of connection that draw the audience in. No two nights are ever the same. Some may be more intense, others up the ante in physical comedy. It just depends.
There are actually two Driftwood casts on tour at the moment and that also influences the show's dynamics. A dance duet in one is a Bungle, reflecting Johnny's indigenous Australian heritage, while in the other it's a Siva, the Western Samoan name for dance.
It is extraordinary when you see the show and observe the chemistry at play to think this cast have been together for only a couple of months. They were trained up in several locations in Australia by the Originals, as I like to call them (too many vampire box sets!), three friends Jesse Scott, Lachlan Mcaulay and Natano Faanana, who branched out from Circa. What would happen if both casts were to team up? I wondered. Well, actually, it turns out they are all getting together to explore ideas in Cardiff this summer at NoFit State, and let's see where they take us next...
Driftwood is on at the moment, part of the Underbelly Festival, until 4 June.