BY A THREAD Sultans of swing

By a Thread
is a suspenseful circus act that uses a single piece of rope to explore the relationship between trust and risk. Returning to FRINGE WORLD for its final year, performers are hoisted and swung by one another to create breathtaking dynamics. Catch it at Main Hall at Girls School from Tuesday, January 21 to Sunday, February 9.
BRAYDEN EDWARDS talks to star acrobat Charice Rust about defying the expectations of what female bodies are capable of and having someone else’s sweat in your mouth. 

Most of us couldn’t imagine doing the things acrobats do. Does it take a special kind of person to do it or is it something that can be learnt with enough training and time?

Circus is wonderfully accessible – there is something for everyone. No matter your body type or physical background or interest, there is something in circus training for you. It is an amazing way to be physical or try something new as it’s not competitive like sports, it’s creative. It is also very communal – every day in a circus training space people encourage each other, cheer each other on as we attempt new skills, or offer ‘hang in there’ encouragement when it’s an off day.

However it does take a special level of commitment to make it your career; to train even when you don’t feel like it, to push through sore muscles and rope burn, to keep getting back up after not succeeding at a skill, again and again.

And what was it that drew you to the art? There are plenty of other perfectly good creative endeavours that don’t involve the same amount of risk…

I had always been physical and enjoyed pushing my body, building strength and endurance. I credit the start of my circus path to working on my grandparent’s sheep farm. I relished the hard physical labour, the endurance of getting through a day or a mob of sheep. And I also loved defying the expectations of what female bodies are capable of. I found circus classes as a teenager and it wasn’t strange to be a strong girl, it was encouraged!

It opened up new and exciting challenges for me physically, new ways to push myself. But more importantly, it opened me up to a whole world of telling stories, exploring ideas, and sharing emotions through physicality. This is what drew me to circus. Circus as an art form is so rich with evocative meaning – it has within it extreme examples of what it’s like to go through everyday life.

The relationship between two acrobats and the trust between them is like nothing most of us will ever comprehend. Is it easy to start working with new people or is it something that has to be built up over time?

Acrobats are wonderfully trusting. We share the common experiences of learning technical skills so you can pretty much turn up at a training jam and work with someone you’ve only just met and trust them with your safety. The precision of high-level acrobatics does take a lot of training and trust over time, but it is generally very easy to start working with new people. Circus is a wonderful community.

Your Fringe show By a Thread is said to examine the relationship between trust and risk. How is that conveyed in the production?

In By a Thread we use a single piece of rope, 30 metres long. This rope hangs down like two ropes in a gym. However instead of being rigged to the roof, our rope is hung between two pulleys and so the two ropes become a counterweight system. If an acrobat climbs one of the ropes, the rest of the ensemble must provide an equal force on the other rope to keep them from falling. Instead of rigging and hardware, it is the hands and muscles of the ensemble that keep each other in the air.

This was such a perfect physical manifestation of relationships or connectedness and we have built our whole show around relating to others. To engage with another person; a stranger, a friend, a lover, takes trust. Trust that you’ll be kind, that you won’t hurt me, that you’ll be there for me, that I’ll be there for you. We place our trust in people and with that, there is always the risk of being hurt. But it is that trust and risk that can lead to great joy.

And why was that something you wanted to explore with this show?

In our work we aim to connect with audiences on a level deeper than spectacle, to give them an intimate experience of acrobatics. They might never actually try to climb a rope themselves, but I’m certain everyone has had a moment in their life where they have felt that they are struggling to hang on, to pull themselves up, bit by bit, to keep aiming higher. Even though acrobatics might seem so out of the ordinary, we try to relate to people’s lives through this show. This also means letting them share the joy you can get out of throwing yourself, acrobatically or figuratively, into someone else’s arms.

And are creative concepts like this part of a broader trend in the field expanding beyond our traditional ideas of circus? What is the ‘new wave’ of circus performance and what kind of exciting directions do you see things taking in the future?

Circus is constantly evolving. We are excited to be part of a new wave of contemporary circus, part of an explosion of new companies that are pushing how circus can be expressed as an art form. Aided by the work of previous circus generations stripping back the conventions of the classic forms of circus, this new wave is characterised by work that is elite in skill, genre-crossing, and steeped in complex ideas and the authentic experience of the performers.

One of the most exciting things about this moment in circus are the amazing, intelligent, entertaining new companies lead by women, queer people, and First Nations people making awesome new works that demand audiences that don’t accept the status quo.

What’s something about performing acrobatics that the average person wouldn’t know about and would surprise them?

Performing acrobatics is very different to training it. Having the audience there responding gives you boosts of adrenaline that can be useful for strength-based acrobatics, as it gives you power and oomph. But it can wreak havoc with balance-based skills like tight-wire, handstands, and juggling.

We work very hard trying to be graceful and coordinated on stage, but of course with live performance, sometimes things happen and you get someone else’s sweat in your mouth.

This has been touted as the final FRINGE WORLD for this show. What’s next for you and One Fell Swoop Circus going forward? Any more exciting new ideas in the works we might be able to look forward to seeing come to life in the coming years?

We’ve loved performing By a Thread for FRINGE WORLD audiences over the last three years – it was the first festival we took the show to and it has a special place in our hearts. We’re excited to continue touring By a Thread overseas while also working on our other projects. In 2019 we developed a new show, Sensory Decadence based on Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. It is an explosion of sensation and circus, and we can’t wait to bring it to FRINGE WORLD sometime soon!