Australia's Circa Contemporary Circus explore humanity by pushing the limits

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When it comes to connecting with an audience, performers in Australia’s Circa Contemporary Circus employ various methods to stay in the zone when engaging in high-risk acrobatics.

Some block out the crowd to concentrate. Others, such as veteran acrobat and rope specialist Jon Bonaventura, likes to soak up the often visceral responses from the audience as part of the experience.

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“I love the interaction, I love hearing people,” says Bonaventura, in a Zoom interview with Postmedia. “It spurs me on to play a little bit, to make things a little bit scarier, to make eye contact when I get the chance. I know, for some people, they are very much ‘This is my space … ‘ But I really like hearing people gasp. It’s fun.”

By all accounts, audiences do gasp when watching Circa. The 20-year-old Brisbane-based company will perform Human 2.0 at Arts Commons Jack Singer Concert Hall on Feb. 13, promising an evening of seemingly death and gravity-defying action where 10 acrobats build human towers and bounce around each other in impressive displays of balance and strength. Humans 2.0 is one of 18 shows the veteran company can perform, a sequel to 2017’s Humans that is set to a pulsing, electronic soundtrack and  built around ideas of teamwork and trust and the vague, all-encompassing theme of being “deeply engaged with the challenge of being human.

For most of the show, the 10 performers are on stage together. There are two solo performances, including one by Bonaventura. The Melbourne native was a competitive gymnast for a decade before joining the National Institute of Circus Arts, where he specialized in rope acrobatics. His work is one of the brief interludes in Humans 2.0 where the focus is on a singular performer and not on the 10-person collective on stage.

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“It’s not linear at all,” says Bonaventure. “We allow the audience to pick and choose their narrative. There is very much a theme of teamwork and what we can achieve together rather than what we can achieve as a singular person. Inherently in the circus, trust is a big part of the deal: throwing yourself out there and hoping someone catches you. We really show that in Humans 2.0. It’s different every night. It’s about trust. We get to play a lot of the time in this show, which I really love. Obviously, it’s very choreographed but there are definitely spaces in the show to make new choices and try something different to keep it fresh for us. The 10 of us work together all the time, so it’s nice for us to surprise each other.”

Humans 2.0 was created by Yaron Lifschitz, artistic director and CEO of Circa. The company has performed in more than 40 countries and for 1.5 million people, offering a trademark mix of circus acts, contemporary dance and theatre.

Performers come from various disciplines. But even by circus-folk standards, Bonaventura’s background is intriguing. When he was 12 years old, he was playing on a trampoline at a friend’s house. His friend’s mother happened to be a casting agent working on Spike Jonze’s 2009 film Where the Wild Things Are, which was being shot in Melbourne. The acclaimed fantasy film, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, starred 10-year-old Max Records in the lead role. Due to both his resemblance to Records and the skills he displayed on the trampoline, Bonaventura began his show-biz career as the young actor’s 12-year-old stunt double.

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“It was just kind of a right-time, right-place situation,” he says. “The casting agent was the mother of a friend of mine and I was in the backyard on a trampoline. She said ‘I know a kid who looks just like this actor.’ They called my mom and signed me up. It was my first taste of performing.”

Bonaventura was seven when he began training for a career in gymnastics and he retired at the age of 18, when he worked in film and TV before joining The National Institute of Circus Arts.

He has spent nine years with Circa and spends a good part of his life on the road. At any one time, he could be asked to perform in one of numerous shows under the Circa umbrella.

As with gymnastics and stunt work, there is presumably a focus on safety when it comes to Circa performers, even if the sense of danger is one of the appealing aspects of the show.

“It’s dangerous in that we’re pushing the limits of what we’re supposed to be able to do as humans,” he says. “But, in a real practical sense, we’re trained athletes full-time and we spend three hours a day before the show training together making sure the skills are safe. It’s dangerous in that it’s very high level in a skill sense, but we’re great at mitigating risk and looking out for each other.”

Humans 2.0 will be performed at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

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