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Circus 1903 at the Canberra Theatre great entertainment

Circus 1903  The Golden Age of Circus. Produced by Simon Painter and Tim Lawson. The Works Entertainment. Canberra Theatre. Until December 11. canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 62752700.

Unlike many of the circus shows Canberra has seen in recent years, Circus 1903 has no narrative line. It aims simply to look back at the circus tradition of yesteryear when the focus was on the skills of those who made up that tradition, when act followed act in a seemingly random fashion, and when performing animals were part of the fabric of the show. Everything one might expect of a traditional circus was there in Circus 1903 – a ringmaster, jugglers, acrobats, high wire artists, clowns, audience involvement, and, yes, animals.

Yet this was a very contemporary show. Most obviously, the animals in this circus were puppets. We saw a large elephant called Queenie, beautifully manipulated and wonderfully lit whenever she appeared, and a baby elephant puppet called Peanut, still learning the tricks of the trade, and a truly delightful character.

But beyond having puppets replacing live animals, other acts were daring and often heart-stopping in a way not seen in those traditional circus performances of past decades. Les Incredibles (Anny Laplante and Andrei Kalesnikau), for example, were like a trapeze act without the trapeze. Kalesnikau, strongly built with impeccable timing, worked from a stationary position on a towering structure as he tossed Laplante, smaller and more delicate in build, into the air and caught her perfectly after every one of her aerial somersaults and gravity-defying moves.

An act called Duo Flash (Yevgeniy Dashkivskyy and Yefrem Bitkine) was acrobatic, balancing and clowning all combined. And no funny red noses and clown suits here, just smart striped shirts, bow ties and smart trousers held up with elegant braces. Yet this stylish duo was as amusing (or perhaps more so) as anyone dressed in a clown suit.

The Great Gaston (Francois Borie) also especially caught my attention. His juggling act was truly spectacular in the speed of its performance. At times it was impossible to see the individual shape of each of the clubs he was using. They formed a silver cascade spilling through the air. And so the show went on, always surprising, always venturesome, and always crossing boundaries and skill sets.

Circus 1903 was beautifully choreographed, especially in Act I, which in the beginning focused on the setting up of an imaginary circus tent. Every artist had a defined role and all worked together impressively. They were also nicely costumed, individually but with a general colour scheme of browns and earthy reds, which added to the sense of common purpose that seemed to bind them together. By Act II the circus was in full swing inside the "big top" and the browns and reds had given way to a greater sense of individuality in costuming. The show was also impressively lit with several strings of coloured lights evoking the inside of a tent.

The show was held together firmly and skilfully by the Ringmaster (David Williamson). And mention must be made of those members of the audience who braved their way on to the stage to be part of the show, all of whom were more than worthy extras in the show. They included several children and an adult, who had a cigarette, held between his lips, slashed in two by knife thrower and whip wielder the Perilous Perigos (Alfonso Lopez).

A great night's entertainment, and a classy show.