Elena’s back with a sexy circus for grown-ups

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A handstand performance in “Rouge”. Photo: Brig Bee

A TANTALISING circus cabaret that’s all about sex is coming to The Playhouse soon — and there’s a strong Canberra connection.

The brainchild of former Canberra artist Elena Kirschbaum, “Rouge” is billed as “a decadent blend of sensational acrobatics, operatic cabaret and tongue-in-cheek burlesque”. She prefers to describe it as a “circus for grown-ups”.

Isabel Hertaeg… the opera singer “with a twist”. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

When we catch up by phone to Melbourne where she now lives, Kirschbaum is quick to stress that during her heyday as one of the major figures in the Canberra circus scene, it was as a producer rather than a performer that she was known. 

That focus has continued as she has developed an international name in the circus world for her provocative shows, all the while travelling and personally seeing about 150 shows a year to keep up with the talent.

“Australia is leading the charge as far as contemporary circus is going,” she says. 

“We came to this kind of circus 15 or 20 years before the rest of the world… Edinburgh and London are full of circus performers from Australia, so we are definitely punching above our weight.

“I moved interstate 13 or 14 years ago now, but I never stopped coming back to Canberra.”

She’s collaborated on the artistic program at the National Folk Festival, Floriade and Corinbank and was the director of the “Harlequins” event for children as part of the Canberra Centenary Celebrations in 2013.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Kirschbaum didn’t go to the National Institute of Circus Arts, instead working on shows in Adelaide, which she describes as her second home.

Former Canberra circus artist Elena Kirschbaum… “It’s nice to have something that’s really weird, gross, fully funny and silly”.

Winner of Best Circus & Physical Theatre at the 2018 Adelaide Fringe Weeklies, “Rouge” is a successor to her team’s “Papillon”, circus with a vaudevillian edge, also seen at the Fringe.

“In a country like this with a lot of companies at about the same level, you need to know what your brand is.” 

That’s where sex comes in.

Traditional circus, she notes, is not sexy and is based more on physical thrills in a “something-for-everyone” family-friendly entertainment. 

“But with contemporary circus you find a particular demographic and tell a particular story,” she says.

“Cabaret and circus blend well because you can play with physicality, but we’ve also tried to put our special spin on cabaret around politics.

“It’s not marketed as a political show because we want people to come who just want to have a fun night out, but we are talking about big issues in our show, not the normative stories told over and over again.

“We have an opportunity to play around with relationships and there’s a sense of humour in making a show about sex; it’s nice to have something that’s really weird, gross, fully funny and silly, it’s a nice Australian tradition not to get too serious.”

When she talks of politics, she means sexual politics, the expectations of gender and sexuality, in a queer-friendly show that plays with different types of sexuality while still providing space for women to be “fierce, strong and powerful”.

One of her favourite routines in “Rouge” is performed by a man in a feminine style, even though he has a masculine body. Another is Isabel Hertaeg, the opera singer “with a twist”, spotted by her on a scoping visit to the theatre. 

“We subvert the stereotype, changing expectations… we like to push people a little bit, but in a joyful way,” she says. 

“Rouge”, The Playhouse, October 23-26. Book at canberratheatrecentre.com.au 

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