Circus Oz Returns to UCLA With From the Ground Up

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Stevee Mills and Jeremy Davies in Circus Oz's "From the Ground Up." Photo by Rob Blackburn

As Mike Finch explains his role as artistic director of Circus Oz over the phone from Tacoma, Wash., loud noises erupt in the background. The Australian company features a 12-piece live band, and Finch is at sound check.

This week, Circus Oz lands in Los Angeles for a four-day run of its From the Ground Up at Royce Hall, as part of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA) season. It’s the troupe’s first time in LA since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival — when the company appeared across the UCLA campus at the smaller Freud Playhouse. Reviewing Oz in that 1984 run, Sylvie Drake ended her glowing LA Times notice by proposing a transfer to a larger LA venue:  “If we had any sense at all, we should move them into the Ahmanson after Evita closes and keep them there all summer.”

Mike Finch

Finch was equally impressed when he first saw Oz a few years later, when he was 21. “It completely blew me away,” Finch says. He dreamed of selling programs or being a stagehand for the company. “It put together all of the pieces for me, because it was funny, irreverent, musical, spectacular, political.”

He ended up pursuing a theater degree, which led to the launch of his own company, Circus Monoxide. The troupe traveled and lived in a double-decker bus. At age 27, Finch applied for and secured an interview for artistic director of Circus Oz.

“For 16 years I’ve been in charge of a company that inspired me in the first place,” he says. “It’s like getting Keith Richards’ job if you’re inspired by the Rolling Stones.

“My job is like being a curator of an ongoing, rolling exhibition,” Finch explains. “I cast an interesting group of people and make sure we keep diversity and variety of body shapes, sensibilities, politics and gender on the stage. Then we go into rehearsal and play and make up this show using high-level circus skills like trapeze and juggling, and also live music and puppetry. It’s more like an ongoing rock band, like a grunge band creating new material. It’s all original material.”

Circus Oz consists of 14 people on stage — all Australian, an equal mix of men and women. Changes in personnel occur each season, amounting to two to three people per year. Most of the performers play an instrument, and many of the musicians are acrobats. It’s important for everyone in the Oz company to have many skills — according to a statement in the program, the company remains committed to its “original spirit of multi-skilling and anarchic but disciplined creativity.”

The drummer performs an aerial act with her set while swinging around the stage. Musical director Carl Polke engages in an electric guitar battle with a clown. The company attempts to subvert gender stereotypes by showcasing strong women and graceful men. Finch also seeks out and hires Aboriginal Australians.

Circus Oz in performance

Circus Oz has been touring internationally since 1978. It has a residency in New York, where the cast has performed at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street every three years since 1997. Before leaving its home base each season, the ensemble spends three months fine-tuning its performance, setting up a 1,500-seat circus tent in Australia’s eight capital cities and fitting into smaller venues elsewhere. In 33 years, Circus Oz has touched down in 26 countries in five continents.

Yet most spectators agree that Circus Oz cannot shake its Australian-ness. “Australians take the piss out of each other,” Finch says. “There’s something inherently Australian about the inability to take things too seriously.” People everywhere, especially Australians immersed in other cultures, comment on the show’s Australian flavor. “For them it’s a little blast of home,” he adds.

Circus Oz is like extended family. Technical director Tim Coldwell is a founding member, as is costume designer Laurel Frank. The nonprofit organization has about 65 members, but not everyone travels with the company. Some past participants, or life members, sit on the board and serve as the custodians of culture; others remain in Port Melbourne at the Secret Circus Lab, which consists of a rehearsal room, prop-building workshop, and office.

While this week’s iteration of Circus Oz features a different cast and content from 1984’s version, Finch says the spirit of the show is the same. He’s clear about its core values: celebration, inclusion, diversity, multi-skilling, and irreverence.

“There is the razzmatazz of American circus, obscure artiness of French circus, gloss of French Canadian circus,” says Finch. “Circus Oz is loose and raw and energetic.” He reaches for an Australian slang term, “˜larrikin,’ which refers to a class clown or heckler. “That’s the personality of the company,” he says.

What inspires Finch and Circus Oz is performance that is rooted in place. “I’m interested in stuff that’s honest, raw and funny,” he says. “I’m inspired by human connection and companies that proudly represent who they are and where they’re from.”

He commends three Australian companies: Circa, which blends contemporary dance and circus skills, The Candy Butchers and Tom Tom Crew, which mixes hip-hop, street dance, beatboxing and acrobatics. He also mentions Quebec’s Timba, performed by French Canadian lumberjacks, LA’s Cirque Berzerk, and Les 7 doigts de la main, based in Montreal (it presented Traces at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood in 2011) . In Finch’s opinion, over the last 10 years circus has expanded, and as the industry matures and gets bigger, the sheer diversity is fabulous.

Circus Oz in "From the Ground Up"

Cirque du Soleil, however, is not included in his list. Its productions, he says, often employ “a world music mentality without acknowledging the sources of the ideas, so you get a show that is a pastiche of gibberish and images that seem to be drawn from culture around the world, but you’re not sure exactly where, and there’s a kind of alienation effect of the performers hidden behind masks or makeup and costume. It’s not French Canadian culture or Chinese or French. It has this sense of feeling foreign to everyone.”

Soon fans will be able to view all Circus Oz performances online. With funding from the Australian government, the company has launched a major initiative to create a living archive. Each video performance will be annotated with the date and the performers’ names. Space will be given for people to type in their own Circus Oz experiences.

“I’d like to see it that circus in Australia takes on status of the opera or the ballet,” says Finch, “one of those cultural iconic institutions that hangs on to the irreverence, the humor, politics and progressive values that Circus Oz has, but becomes an institution that continues on.”

“As the world becomes more obsessed with screen culture, there will always be this room to get 1,000 people in a venue with people in the middle doing some stuff that makes everybody feel unified in joy and excitement and spectacle and laughter,” he says. “There’ll always be a human craving for that.”

Circus Oz: From the Ground Up, Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, UCLA, Westwood 90095. Opens Thursday. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Feb. 10. Tickets: $10-$60. www. 310-825-2101.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow