Mike Finch is the artistic director of Circus Oz, an Australian contemporary circus (formed in 1978) that combines traditional circus acts (minus animals) with social satire. "It was one of the first companies in the world to take on a Seventies aesthetic of progressive politics and gender balance with live contemporary music, comedy and satire, and still call itself a circus," Finch says.
"Now, 'new circus' is an industry. The public latch on to the fact that there are no animals, but to a much greater degree it is probably more about a sense of artfulness," he says. "The physical skills of trapeze, juggling and acrobatics as the building blocks of circus are still the same, but in the same way that painting still uses paint and canvas, the content and the context has been reinvented."
Back home, Circus Oz performs in its own million-dollar big top. Finch first joined as a work experience student before returning several years later as the artistic director. In the interim, in 1997, he had his own operation, Circus Monoxide, travelling the eastern seaboard of Australia with a show that folded out of the side of a bus. Finch, who spends about one-third of his time touring internationally with Circus Oz, is now part of a much more sophisticated set-up that has travelled to about 20 countries. "We travel by plane and stay in hotel rooms," he says, "but I still feel like the new guy."
The show is in a constant state of evolution. "Circus culture runs at a different pace from the theatre," Finch says. "It takes six or seven years to make a really great circus act. The show looks anarchic and crazy, but the skills take a long time to develop. It's like gardening; it takes a while for things to grow and come to full maturity."
Circus Oz is back in London for the first time since its sell-out residency at Sadler's Wells in 2000, with a completely new show. The first act sees the stage, performers and props go up in flames. After the fire goes out, a human cannonball is shot across the stage. "At Christmas, we performed the human cannon act on Broadway in New York," Finch recalls. "The theatre was smaller, so we shot the man out of the cannon from the balcony on to the stage below." There is also a human pyramid with the performers dressed as politicians.
The troupe of 12 versatile performers is made up of strong women and beautiful men, Finch says. "We turned tradition on its head. In the past, circus girls wore fishnet tights and high heels, and they had calloused hands and bruised legs covered by glitter. We stripped that away - celebrated it - and allowed women to be strong. This idea flips back and forth. It is a bit of a joke. Now the women can be sexy without being sexist, and the men can look beautiful, too."
This is a very Australian show, but the British will relate to its ironic feel. "We are not taking ourselves too seriously," Finch says.
Circus Oz, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (0870 060 0777; www.rfh.org.uk), Friday to 5 SeptemberReuse content