Next month the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra is joining forces with premier Auckland circus theatre company, The Dust Palace, to perform Midnight, a contemporary production that combines scores such as Swan Lake with mime and aerial acrobatics.
“It’s such a cool thing for us to be part of,” beams Eve Gordon, who co-founded The Dust Palace with partner Mike Edward in 2009. “It’s a real validation because we’re trying to forge the legitimacy of New Zealand circus as high class art so to have the stamp of approval from the classical music scene is very important.”
I catch up with Eve just before The Dust Palace heads for its second Canadian tour to perform in Vancouver and Montreal — the home of the Cirque du Soleil whom Eve praises for raising the profile of modern circus. Though, she laments, there is still much work to be done outside of North America. “On our first trip to Canada, we were told that our work was authentic and obviously from a different place to the major international schools, which was so cool to hear,” says Eve. “We plan to further explore our uniqueness and New Zealand identity with future projects. I grew up in Rotorua were it was 50% Maori, so I have a real interest in telling our stories.”
Eve was 12 when she decided she was destined to be an entertainer — an actor, to be precise. As a child, she also practised ballet (“I still use that body concept of grace and extension today”), though her lack of gymnastic skills and physical courage (“I was terrible, and not brave as a kid!”) meant there was no hint of the quite literal high-flying career to come. Eve went on to attend Unitec’s drama school where she met Beth Kayes, one of the founders of Legs on the Wall in Australia. “They were the first people to perform in harnesses off the side of buildings,” says Eve. “Beth introduced me to basic acrobatics and I was hooked. I found all of the places I could possibly train, and around six years later, I began performing professionally, and have been doing so now for 8 years”. (You may also recognise Eve from Shortland Street, or The Almighty Johnsons.)
Not being a natural physical risk taker, I ask how she dealt with the height.
“I still have a fairly strong fear of mortality, which I think is useful in many ways,” Eve says. “This type of work demands a healthy dose of respect.” While researching the circus, Eve discovered the work of Spanish scribe Federico Garcia Lorca and connected with his philosophy of being always aware of death in order to live properly. She describes the rush of performing as “one of the most amazing things in the world”. “My parents studied and now teach vipassana meditation which is an awareness technique to focus on the present moment, and that nothing else matters,” Eve continues. “Circus performance is very much like that. It expands time in a similar way to when you’re in an accident and the adrenalin kicks in enabling you to react superfast while time seems to slow down. Performing is similar, but without the tragedy or drama — unless you’re performing a tragedy or drama!”
Eve reveals that circus performance requires 20% of the brain to be switched to safety mode at all times. “It’s different to actors, you can’t go crazy and get lost in what you’re doing,” she adds. “When you first start out, it’s the other way around, you must focus 80% on safety and 20% on analysing your performance, then it stays at 50-50 for many years, then 80-20 when you’re very experienced.”
High-wire acts and their ilk are obviously a real confidence booster also. “People feel good about themselves when they can hold themselves up by a single hand four metres in the air,” says Eve. “It qualifies your body as something that is more than beauty, as something that is functional. ‘Can I do this movement? Not yet, but if I train harder and longer then I will achieve it.’ It develops a trust in yourself that seeps into other areas of your life.”
The Dust Palace also runs daily circus schools, including scholarship programs for underprivileged kids. Performing aside, Eve gets just as much of a thrill from watching students’ confidence soar. “It’s incredible how much they grow, and how rewarding it feels,” she says. “It’s a very humbling experience. There have been several studies around the benefits of circus arts, especially for kids that don’t fit into the norm. It has been shown to create new pathways in the brain which greatly benefit the brain’s functionality. The beauty of circus theatre is that there is a discipline for every brain structure, whether it be the analytical types usually drawn to juggling, or the little monkeys that can’t sit still and need to channel their energy.”
And then there is the sense of belonging.
“It’s a community,” says Eve. “People talk about the ‘circus family’, and it’s so true because when you are undertaking dangerous tasks with a group of people in a non-competitive environment, with everyone working towards the same goals, it forges trust and a connection in a way that nothing else does.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
For more information about The Dust Palace, check out thedustpalace.co.nz. Midnight will be performed with the APO at the Aotea Centre on 23 November. Tickets available through Ticketmaster.