Circus unlocks the lockdown

Artistic director Jens Altheimer, assistant director Nell Simpson and some of the Sliders performance prepare for CircusWA’s post-Covid debut Ungrounded. Photo by Steve Grant.

CircusWA’s first post-Covid show opens in Fremantle on December 18 and shows the adaptability and importance of art in the face of adversity.

Ungrounded, performed by the circus’s Sliders and Colliders youth troupe at the Freo Big Top on Adelaide Street, showcases 20 young performers who explore worlds behind closed doors.

Having been created through the very un-circus-like method of online collaboration because of the pandemic, it fittingly re-imagine’s the traditional landscape of circus performance, with a mobile audience that has to respond to the performers moving around them.

Melbourne-based artistic director Jens Altheimer said the production reflected the uncertainty of the lockdown.

“The performers did a video where everybody performed in a door frame and that gave me the idea that doors are such a great object in terms of you having a world behind and in front,” Altheimer said.

“During Covid we had our doors locked off to the other side, and I thought it was interesting to create a performance based around the concept of doors where we as an audience can peek into what happens behind them, and behind each door we see a strange little universe; whimsical worlds behind each of them.” 

The videos, which had to be filmed solo, were pasted together to create the show’s basic concept.

As WA’s restrictions eased the troupe were able to rehearse together again, although Altheimer was initially stuck in quarantine after flying in from Melbourne and had to direct everyone via a computer tablet which was physically moved around the Big Top.

The challenge of getting communication from Jens to the troupe’s trainers Nell Simpson and Rachel Bodenstaff to the performers forced everyone to be a little open-minded about the outcome.

Altheimer said it resulted in meetings to plan and develop the show becoming a lengthy and complex process that needed “a lot of patience and a good dose of humour to not take the failures too seriously and move on with a good energy”. 

CircusWA artistic director Jo Smith said the company fared reasonably well during the initial shutdown, because its large pool of performers qualified for JobKeeper payments and there was no festival season to drag them away to Europe.

But because of a quirk in JobKeeper requirements, that well ran dry a couple of months ago. Ms Smith said her initial devastation soon gave way to stoicism; circus always runs on the sniff of an oily rag, so in a way it was situation normal and the company has worked its way through.

She says circus was in a unique position to respond to the Covid shutdown with a performance like Ungrounded.

“Circus is a physical art; the creation of circus is to touch others and to move and hold onto objects,” Ms Smith said.

“To create something virtually, without the capacity to be in the same place together is almost an impossible task … but circus is about the impossible.

“When we were told to live and exist as humans without contact, without touch, circus, because it has always worked with impossibilities, was well positioned to tell that story.”

Tickets available at


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