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The Landscape Project

With acclaimed circus and physical theatre performer, independent artist, teacher and director Debra Batton at the helm, the National Institute of Circus Arts' (NICA) final year students are on the cusp of showing us once again why circus has become such a serious art form in Australia in their new show The Landscape Project.

Charming, funny and as fit as fuck in her fifties, Batton (also the touring show director for Circus Oz and part of comedic circus duo Batton and Broadway) is the embodiment of #LifetimeGoals. Growing up in a sporty family, Batton was a gymnast as a kid, but had her eyes opened to a whole new universe in terms of the way to use her body when she hit uni and discovered the drama and dance department.
 
Diverted from her plan to study physical education, Batton moved into community arts and physical theatre before touring as a performer with Circus Oz and Sydney’s award-winning physical theatre company Legs on the Wall. Eventually, a niggling urge to choreograph and direct snuck in.
 
“I started to get frustrated with directors, because I felt like I could see possibilities that they couldn’t,” Batton says. “Of course, once you start doing that as a performer you have to find a way to get rid of it or go and direct yourself, because you’re a pain in the proverbial thinking that you could do a better job than the director.”
 
Batton’s relationship with NICA – Prahran’s under-grad training ground for a new breed of circus performers – goes way back. She’s been the performance teacher for the first year students as well as directing the second-years in their end-of-year production before this gig.
 
As the name suggests, The Landscape Project is about the landscape – literally and figuratively. “I’m very interested in space – it’s one of the primary tools that excites me when I’m working physically,” Batten says. “I love to be able to adapt a show to the actual space that it’s in. Often when we make work in circus, you’re making it to tour and you have all of these physical constraints – you can’t have a big set, you can’t take longer than four hours to bump in and you have to be able strike it within 30 minutes – all of these constraints that allow you to sell your show. But this show is only going to be done once in this space, so I wanted to really use the space and not curtain it in to become proscenium march theatre.”
 
In pondering the space, Batton was immediately struck by the fact that its profile was landscape – more broad than deep – which led her to explore theories behind manmade vistas. “A constructed landscape, as opposed to the natural environment, is all about how humans interact with it, what they bring to it, what they take away from it, and what needs to be added to make it more beautiful or useful,” she says. “So one of my starting points with the students was, ‘What do you want to bring into this space?’ We worked with this theory that anything they brought in could possibly be in the show.”
 
The consequence was that so many good ideas were brought to the table, Batton needed to divide the show into three acts, as opposed to circus’ traditional two. Notionally, the first act is a solo showcase. The second builds relationships between the performers, the apparatus with which they’re working and the space, while the third sees the students accelerating away from the landscape, which is apropos given that they’re about to leave NICA to hit the world stage.
 
Ultimately, Batton describes the result as “beautiful and disruptive”, keeping in mind that this is circus, but maybe not as you know it.
 
“I feel that there’s a lot of circus that’s in your face and telling you to have a good time. With this, you need to sit down and watch deeply; watch the detail and be absorbed rather than just expecting it to entertain you.”
 
By Meg Crawford

The Landscape Project runs from Wednesday November 23 - Saturday December 3 at the NICA National Circus Centre. Tickets via www.nica.com.au.