For most of us, circus acts go hand in hand with large crowds, cheeky clowns, and cotton candy or other forms of edible decadence. Not so for Australia's internationally acclaimed new act Casus Circus.
Meet the modern circus — a pared-down work of acrobatic or "acrobalance" genius in which four individuals, all highly-trained acrobats of extraordinary strength and skill, use their bodies and little else to keep audience members on the edges of their seats for a solid hour. The show takes place in the round at Memminger Auditorium, affording intimate views from all angles as Casus members balance, climb, throw, catch, twist, flip, dance, contort, fall, and fly, employing a select group of limited props and mostly each other as supports and launching pads. Stripped of the razzmatazz bells and whistles of big top theatrics, Casus Circus redefines the genre, testing and exploring the limits of what the human body can achieve.
Knee Deep was conceived in 2011 by Casus's four founding members in Brisbane, Australia. All had essentially grown up in the circus, with the single exception of Natano Fa'anana, who embraced the art at the shockingly late age of 30. All hailed from different troupes but dreamt of collaborating to create an experience uniquely their own. As Casus Circus, the four threw around ideas, then each other, before settling on a show that combines notions of strength with fragility.
It was co-founder Jesse Scott who proposed the idea that eggs should play a central theme in their show. The incredible, edible egg: an object both delicate and remarkably strong in many respects, and a perfect metaphor for the human body, not to mention the human spirit. In Knee Deep, lights rise on an empty stage scattered with egg cartons. The sole female member of the cast, Kali Retallack, emerges to carefully place the soles of her bare feet atop the open cartons. She walks on them — and does not break a one. If all goes well, the eggs will not break until deliberately broken later in the show, when they're dropped from great heights by a cast member who is balanced on another cast member, who is balanced on another cast member, like human Kapla planks.
"At first, we broke a lot of eggs," says co-founder and Spoleto cast member Fa'anana. Fa'anana's Samoan roots and unconventional training — he learned from individuals, rather than at a school — bring unique style and talents to the show, making him widely respected by the circus arts community worldwide. "They broke for art," he says. "During our initial creative development for Knee Deep, maybe we went through three dozen eggs, which isn't too bad considering what we do with them."
And just in case the show inspires you to set foot on your own cartons, here's a tip: avoid the white ones. They shatter. "The best we've found are medium-sized, brown, organic, free-range eggs," says Fa'anana. Those shouldn't be hard to source here in Charleston. Will the best farmer please come forward?
The arc of the hour-long show alternates between group interactions in which cast members toss, catch, and balance on each other, interspersed with playful vignettes and hold-your-breath acrobatic solos, all performed within the raw proximity of small-scale theater. "Our work," says Fa'anana, "is very much about revealing ourselves as people and not alienating the audience. In Knee Deep, for example, we don't hide the fact that certain tricks hurt. The front row can see the sweat form on brows, or see our winces from the pain. Or they get to see the surprise on our faces, which happens in parts of the show, as much of the show is improvised. We welcome the audience in. It's raw, it's confronting, and in doing that there is an honesty and beauty that is shared."
So how does it feel for a young, contemporary circus act to be so instantly well received? For Fa'anana, the joy comes at the conclusion of each performance. "Every time Knee Deep ends, when the final lighting fades to black and the audience realizes they can breathe and offer their applause, I get goose bumps," he says. "The human body is awesome and capable of doing some magnificent things, with a healthy dose of trust, risk, a strong connection with one another, and a giant imagination."