Energy, heart, joy and fun are the ingredients of the latest circus to hit town. This year, more than any other in recent memory, has been the year of the circus, and we are only at the half-way point! Show after show has showcased (pardon the pun) feats of athleticism, dexterity, strength and endurance. Some have a theme, others are risque, while still more are purely about skill and showmanship. Cirque Africa fits neatly into this latter category.
The cast consists of 38 of Africa’s finest aerial artists, jugglers, stilt dancers, contortionists, clowns and more. They hail from Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. I counted 24 performers the night I saw it, along with an excellent rhythmic nine piece band from Zanzibar and Zimbabwe that perform music specially composed for this Australian tour. It is a celebration of African culture, theatre, song and dance. Cirque Africa travelled to the USA, Germany, Costa Rica, Italy, France, Romania, Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain before venturing Down Under (their first time here).
Although they profess to run a 90 minute show, excluding interval, we got every bit of two hours worth and there was so much to enjoy and applaud wildly. I am happy to report that even after my surfeit of circus-related performances, during which I believed I had seen every kind of act – many, many times over – there was some fresh material here. Admittedly, I had been spoilt for choice and variety, but even if you have seen acrobats and jugglers before, these guys (and I use the term generically) push it to the limit.
There are more hula hoops, bowls and balls, more routines, higher pyramids, stronger men, even a male torso contorted to such an extent that you couldn’t conceive it is humanly possible. And that is without any mention of the glorious and richly colourful African-themed costumes – numbering more than 200 – which are such an important part of the overall package.
The designers should take a bow, because all I need say about that is ‘brilliant’. For the first time, Cirque Africa is staged in a 12-metre high big top or tent, providing elevated seated for up to 1,100 people at any one time. Among my personal favourites was The Amazing Hakuna Matata Acrobats, the world’s largest African acrobatic troupe. There are 10 of them and they are as nimble as they are spectacular.
While I can’t say the dancers rocked my boat (one of them was the first act and I thought that fell flat), some acts are stronger than others and overall Cirque Africa lacks the sophistication of a Cirque du Soleil, there is still much commend it. Part of that has to do with the audience connection. There appears to be a greater intimacy. Clearly this lot is out to please and impress, and in spite of the reservations I have just expressed, in large part they do. And what would a circus be without crowd participation, which we get with much mirth and merriment in both the first and second acts. Overall, kids and adults alike will be mesmersed by what is served up, even if they have seen as much circus as I have.
Produced and directed by ‘Papa Africa’, aka Winston Ruddle, he has extensive experience in stage performances and serves as Cirque Africa’s ebullient ringmaster. Ruddle founded and directed the renowned Mama Africa shows as well as Cirkafrika 1 and 2 in French-speaking countries. When scouring for talent for Mama Africa in Tanzania, he founded Mama Africa’s acrobat school. The artists from Ruddle’s school have performed in venues on five continents, including on Broadway. He is the first black African in the world to own, direct and produce a circus show in a big top.
Buy your tickets to Cirque Africa at www.cirqueafrica.com.au. It is well worth doing. My ulimate test is whether or not I would see it again and the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.
Cirque Africa will be in Australia for two years. It is playing at Burnley Oval in Richmond for a month before moving around the state and the country. Check the website for details.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television