Circus Oz is to close after 44 years. They irrevocably changed Australian circus, and brought it to the world

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In 1980 I was in London working at the Roundhouse Center for the Performing Arts.

Thelma Holt, the legendary director of The Roundhouse, told me she’s booked an Australian circus to perform.

She asked me if I had heard of them. I said no. I had been in England for a few years, so I had no contact with what was happening in Australia.

Despite this, I knew some of the former colleagues of Flinders, who formed something called the New Circus. But I’ve never heard of Circus of Oz.

As I was the only Australian working in the Roundhouse at the time, I was aware of who this group was, and what it would look like. A typical cultural throwback.

Luke Taylor, Jeremy Davis and Paul O'Keefe
The Circus of Oz took something that was Australian in essence and showed it to the world.(Agence France-Presse: Greg Wood)

Of course, they were a revelation. Very interesting, funny, creative, talented and smart. I felt proud to be Australian. They took something that was Australian in essence and showed it to the world.

It was a moment in history when expatriate Australians like me could feel so proud of who we are, and there was no longer any need to apologize for being lesser.

A joyful celebration of the human form

Founded in December 1977, Circus of Oz showed that Australia is unique, that Australians are capable of incredible things and had something special to offer on the world stage.

He brought to the stage a circus model that did not exploit animals but happily celebrated the human form.

Circus of Oz 1993
Circus of Oz showed that Australia was unique, that Australians were capable of incredible things, and had something special to offer on the world stage.(Photo via Punchhawks)

Notable individuals such as Jonno Hawkes, Robyn Laurie, Tim Coldwell, Anni Davey, Sue Broadway and many other great artists, designers, musicians and directors have been a part of this world.

Then there were the people from the management side, like Linda Mickleborough, who has been committed to nurturing and supporting the company for more than 20 years.

This week, we heard that Circus of Oz will be no more. Not sure why this happens. The official statement is somewhat full of management language that clutters rather than clarifying.

No doubt a back story will come out, but it is nonetheless very sad. It indicates that financiers want the company to become something contrary to its nature.

It may also be another technical victim of the past couple of years.

End of an era

Circus Oz has been serving Australia for many years. We’ve all come to take it for granted.

He’s traveled the world promoting what’s unique about Australia and won acclaim in New York, London, Paris and everywhere in between.

Man doing a trick on a unicycle
Circus of Oz travels the world to promote what is unique to Australia.(774 ABC Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown)

She has also been traveling around Australia making Australians feel proud of their culture.

Countless young people have shown that there are alternative jobs to staying in a factory or office. It celebrated Aboriginal culture, protested the things Australia was not proud of.

He encouraged the creation of a new circus and the beauty of physical theater across the country.

Circuses such as the Flying Fruit Fly Circus in Albury/Wodonga, Gravity & Other Myths in Adelaide, Circa in Brisbane and many other groups that were so important to making physical theater in Australia.

Generations of performers trained with Circus of Oz and then moved on to work with them and other circuses around the world.

The National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne would not exist without the Circus of Oz, nor the Circuses in Adelaide.

Five circus performers dressed in costumes evoking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are on stage.
Circus of Oz celebrated Aboriginal culture, protesting the things Australia is not proud of.(Supplied: Brisbane Powerhouse)

Circus of Oz was also a pioneer in how to organize and self-manage a performing arts group. Everyone is paid the same, and everyone participates in the decision-making.

He has been a role model for collective and collaborative leadership. It gave the performers a sense that they were more than just artists: the artists were treated as adults with something to contribute to how their world was built and managed.

Business or creativity?

Circus of Oz has pioneered its recognition as a major player in the Australian performing arts by being accepted into the sacred framework of the Major Performing Arts Framework by the Council of Australia.

This means that it has joined the opera, ballet and theater companies and has been given guaranteed ongoing funding.

A woman holds another woman above her head, musicians in the background.
The Circus of Oz was a special gift to Australia and the world. We will miss her very much.(Supplied: Rob Blackburn)

But this mainstream acceptance may also have been the downfall. Then it had to conform to the administration’s expectations, as an entity alien to its culture and framing.

Transforming the arts into art firms has been an increasing challenge for art practitioners. It is strange for the art industry to govern business models rather than creativity.

It is particularly alien to an entity founded on worker entitlements, collective management models, and democratic principles.

The Circus of Oz was a special gift to Australia and the world. We will miss her very much.

Joe KAUST is Associate Professor and Principal Fellow (Honours) in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. she A member of the Arts Industry Council (SA) and NAVA, and previously receiving funding from the Council of Australia, this article first appeared in The Conversation.


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