The extraordinary Circus 1903 comes to Melbourne: ‘We have to think and feel like we are an elephant’

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The extraordinary Circus 1903 comes to Melbourne: ‘We have to think and feel like we are an elephant’

Circus 1903
Words By Juliette Salom

Step right up and see a show transported straight from the golden age of the circus, right here in Melbourne!

Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne, Circus 1903 is a night of top-class performers and artists from all over the world, serving tricks and talents that hark back to the heyday of the travelling extravaganza. The show will include jugglers and contortionists, strongmen and trapeze artists. There’ll even be an elephant or two – but with an ethical modern twist.

While the use of animals in the circus is becoming a fad of times past, Circus 1903 have carefully adapted its show to not only remove live animals but come up with a creative solution for their replacement. Presented by the team behind the award-winning show War Horse, as well creators from the UK’s Significant Object, Circus 1903 welcomes Queenie and Peanut, the show’s very own puppet elephants.

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Chris Milford – one of the three puppeteers who performs as Queenie – describes the artform of puppeteering as like “a form of acting.” Having puppeteered for the last decade, but been with Circus 1903 since the show’s creation in 2016, Milford says that this style of puppeteering – known as Bunraku – is all about teamwork. “I think the biggest element of it is connecting with your team without talking, without communicating verbally, and then becoming a creature, becoming an animal.”

The use of puppets in place of live African elephants proves not only a suitable solution to concerns of animal cruelty and welfare, but also, as Milford points out, another outlet of artistry. “When we first created the show, there weren’t many circuses around the world that used this style of puppetry.” Milford and his co-performers bring the elephants to life in a way that provides a tactility that is so often missed in much of today’s entertainment. With the overwhelming use of CGI and visual effects regularly replacing live animals in film and TV, the creativity of Circus 1903’s puppets offer a tangibility that no computer image could compete with.

The puppets themselves, however, are only half the story when it comes to bringing these majestic creatures to life. Milford details the immense preparation that he and his co-puppeteers worked on in anticipation for the show, such as watching videos of elephants, researching how they behave, even popping past Melbourne Zoo to check out the real thing. “We got [to] get up close with them and see how they move and how they breathe,” Milford says. “It’s not just about walking, moving around. We have to think and feel like we are an elephant.”

Performances so collaborative don’t work unless the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and on this point Milford fervently agrees. Describing the work as “really rewarding”, it’s the challenge of becoming something bigger than their individual roles through Bunraku puppeteering that is a highlight for Milford, and for audiences too. “As soon as the audience lock into what we’re doing and they understand the artform of it, then they really feel the emotions of the animals in the same way as a real animal.”

The spectacular achievement of a show this creatively unique is the product of the collaboration of “world class athletes”. “The variety of talents in the show is incredible,” he says. “Every artist that is in the show is top class.” The hard work and dedication required to tour with a show as internationally successful as Circus 1903 is made all the easier with the support systems the team have built over the years of working together. “We’re all like family,” Milford says of his fellow circus performers. “Every time we go out on tour it’s like a family reunion. It’s a pleasure to have fun on stage, to give that energy to the audience.” And it’s not all without reward, Milford acknowledges. Just as the cast of Circus 1903 offer their remarkable performances to ticket holders each night of the show, it’s the presence of the spectators that remind the performers why they do it. “The energy the audience gives back,” Milford says, a laugh of gratification bouncing across his words, “is incredible.”

Circus 1903 runs from 4 – 14 January at Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre. Tickets are available here.

This article was made in partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne.