Circus review: Duck Pond, QPAC

Reimagining 'Swan Lake', Circa’s production is a delightfully fresh take on the art of circus.

Circa’s latest world premiere is a cleverly inventive and astonishing blend of many art forms, primarily circus, ballet, theatre and classical music. For a piece based rather loosely around the themes of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz has reinterpreted and combined both stories, setting the show in the theatrical world of a film set.

It’s a tale of identity and discovery offering what Circa does best, its signature physicality and acrobatics centred on a humorous mash-up of both fairy stories. Here we see not only contemporary circus tricks brilliantly on display, but some fine choreography, the artists’ ability to sell a narrative and a marvellous musical score. And, unusually for Circa, Duck Pond has been created to cater for all ages, cleverly resonating on many different levels to engage with the widest possible audience. 

The complex narrative is divided into three sections: Act 1 – The palace, a dream, Act 2 – The lake, and Act 3 – The theatre. Cupid opens the work with a short narrative that introduces the Prince – the magic words ‘Once upon a time’ denoting we are in fairy-land. With Cupid’s help, the Prince falls in love with the Ugly Duckling, but is later captivated by the Black Swan. The second act is all about the swans, with the Ugly Duckling predictably turning into the White Swan. Act three tidies up the theatre and film set in order to go home, but offers some interesting revelations on the way. As in all good fairy stories, everyone lives happily ever after. 

This story is told joyously with a great deal of wit and humour, alongside breath-taking acrobatics and physical theatre. The cast consists of only 10 acrobats, but they give the appearance of being many more, such is their dominance of the stage area and their ability to own and inhabit the space. They are consistently brilliant, brimming with energy, body strength, precision and a fine attention to detail in what appears to be a never-ending set of somersaults and tumbling. No one ever seems able to appear on stage without doing yet another backflip, forward roll, handstand or even more death-defying acrobatics. 

Photo: Pia Johnson.

Circa has always demonstrated how the ensemble are a team, interdependent on each other. Here all 10 artists work intensely together for the entire show. Everyone has their own skills and specialities, whether it be working aerially with a harness or rope, or hanging from silk curtains. Importantly, they trust their partners to throw and catch them as they fly through the air, to hold them at the top of a three-person pyramid, or when they are hanging off a central figure. And it’s all done with such ease and grace.  

Lifschitz has created and directed the work, which has been carefully crafted and delivered beautifully. 

Additionally, he designed the stage: a large empty space, ringed on three sides by a ribboned curtain, allowing entrances and exits from anywhere. This fluidity is essential to the fast-paced work. The curtain started life as neutral beige, but changes colours rapidly during the show, demonstrating a range of scenes, times of day or night and intimate spaces.

Lighting designer, Alexander Berlage, creates a fine colour palate of diverse blues, greens, purples and reds, additionally adding a mirror ball and patterned effects, that are atmospheric and visually exciting. 

Libby McDonnell’s costumes are sumptuous. The golden-crowned Prince with his sparkling outfit, a stunning winged Black Swan and beaded White Swan alongside an Ugly Duckling in shades of feathered grey and light brown, are all perfectly realised. The gorgeous Duck Army with their oversized yellow overalls and flippers are visually playful and fun.

Jethro Woodward, Composer and Sound Designer, has created a most engaging and powerful soundscape and score for this work. Using snippets of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to great effect, he composes a contemporary percussive score that is dynamic and attention-grabbing. Employing considerable skill and sonic techniques, he blends both musical forms with great panache. The Russian phrases seem to creep up on you when least expected and contribute much depth and drama to the work. 

Read: Book review: The Magpie’s Sister by Kerri Turner

The choreography by Rani Luther gives us some lovely moments of elegant, classical ballet, lifting Tchaikovsky’s music to another level amid the circus elements. Of special note are the female artists with a hoop, the romantic duets by the Prince and Ugly Duckling, and the slow, perfectly balanced entrancing duets of the Black and White Swans.     

The final act, with curtains collapsing and acrobats ripping off clothes while rolling up the floor, is both funny and anarchic. One acrobat takes to spinning herself in a hoop, while others adopt a distinctly whimsical pose, being near-naked in display boxes. The whole ends on a breathless high, good triumphing over evil.    

Read: Theatre review: Is God Is, Melbourne Theatre Company

Duck Pond may just be one of the most exhilarating and thought-provoking shows you will see this year. With only a few performances left in its current run, it is not to be missed. 

Duck Pond
Presented by QPAC and Circa
Playhouse, QPAC

Created by Yaron Lifschitz with the Circa ensemble

Director and Stage Design: Yaron Lifschitz
Composer and Sound Designer: Jethro Woodward
Costume Designer: Libby McDonnell

Head of Wardrobe: Anna Handford
Lighting Designer:  Alexander Berlage 
Dramaturg and Associate Choreographer: Rani Luther 

Associate Director and Circa Artist: Marty Evans 
Performers: Jon Bonaventura, Holly-Rose Boyer, Oscar Morris, Paul O’Keeffe, Kimberley Rossi, Sophie Seccombe, Zachery Stephens, Georgia Webb, Violetta Van-Geyzel  

Tickets: $39-$59

Duck Pond will be performed until 8 July 2023.

Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.