Arts Review Singapore Theatre

Review: Carnival of the Animals by CIRCA and Base Entertainment Asia

Imaginary menagerie set to Camille Saint-Saëns.

In the public imagination, beyond clowns and death-defying acrobatic acts, circuses are often associated with images of tamed animals performing incredible tricks, from dancing horses to ferocious lions. But in a modern day setting, these types of circuses are now all but gone. How then can we still recreate that sense of wonder with ethics in mind?

Acclaimed Australian circus company Circa has found a way to do just that – with their show Carnival of the Animals, which played at the Sands Theatre over Easter weekend. Presented by Base Entertainment Asia, Carnival of the Animals is a family-friendly affair that takes inspiration from French romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ musical suite of the same name. And while it may have animals in its name, there are absolutely no animals in the programme, only a team of highly-skilled performers, multimedia and music, to evoke that same joy in its audiences.

Created by Circa artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, and the Circa ensemble, Carnival of the Animals opens simply, with a single suitcase onstage. It’s not long before the quietude is disrupted by the noisy ensemble coming onstage, all wearing red clown noses. As they pry open the suitcase, a ‘ringmaster’ appears, and red and white-striped banners come down from the ceiling. The circus has been unleashed, and we’re about to be in for one heck of a show under the ‘big top’.

The exact mechanics of this fantasy circus are never fully explained, but what does happen is that our talented performers seem to undergo some form of metamorphosis, as they show off their physical theatre skills, ‘transforming’ into unruly dogs, hapless chickens and stand-offish cats. Throughout the musical suite, these transformations continue, each song corresponding to a different group of animals and acrobatic act, while accompanied by video designer Michaela French’s whimsical, storybook-like animations playing on the big screen behind them.

Regardless of creatures of land, air or sea, Circa’s ensemble tackles them all. Equal parts comic and incredible, almost all the acts in the show are group affairs, as they work together to pull off every stunt. Early on, we see them moving as one, as schools of fish traversing the ocean depths, while in others, we see them form large-scale human structures – leaping off shoulders to slide down backs, or even combining to form a moving ‘man-machine’, representing dinosaur skeletons brought to life. Even the most deceptively simple looking acts, such as one where they pair up, sit on each other’s shoulders, and skip rope, are while on each other’s shoulders, is incredibly hard to do. There is so much trust in each other, made clear by the confidence with which they perform each act.

When it comes to the acts which give individuals the spotlight, the requisite space and respect is offered to them, where members of the ensemble showcase their mastery over hula hoops, matching the speed and intensity of their movements to the song, and high elements such as a trapeze. Should you freeze frame at any point, the performers onstage will most likely be caught in a fascinating tableaux, completed by the animation behind – one particularly impressive scene sees a single performer rising out of an ‘ocean’ of blue cloth, like Botticelli’s Venus, as she scatters petals all around, and the rest of the ensemble support her, either by billowing said cloth, or providing ‘live’ music.

All of this adds up to a show that crafts its own fantasy world for audiences to fall in love with, the exuberant energy and celebratory mood clear in every scene. There is always and forever a sense of fun from the narratives we can glean from the visuals, whether it’s graffiti art come to life, monkeys on unicycles precariously rolling across tightropes, or even hyperactive fleas on a dog’s body, sucking out blood represented by big red balloons. Our imagination is easily activated by this sensory feast for the eyes, ears and mind, a fantastical realm that gives us a safari’s worth of material to gawk over and marvel at. If it were in a more intimate venue, such as an actual spiegeltent or smaller theatre, its immersive effect might be even more impressive than at the Sands Theatre, and audience members might feel fully a part of this alternate reality.

Perhaps most exciting of all for the audience however, are the bits when they decide to break the fourth wall, and enter the seating area, with giant inflatable sharks, and towards the end, giant red balls the crowd goes wild for as they bop them back and forth around the theatre. After two years of being strictly confined to our seats and sitting in silence, there is an incomparable sense of magic when we get to be a part of the action. For the many children in the audience, many of whom are no doubt experiencing such an event for the first time, this is integral to developing their love for the performing arts, and allow them to appreciate the power of play, the wonders of the animal kingdom, and the joys of the circus.

Carnival of the Animals ran from 14th to 17th April 2022 at Sands Theatre. More information about Circa available here

More upcoming shows by BASE Entertainment available here

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