It’s hot and dusty, making any slight gust of wind a respite. Recognisable circus tunes screech out noisily from old standing speakers erected around the main tent. A man decked in a dark coat with a top hat suddenly picks up the megaphone and announces: “Mari! Mari! Mari saksikan persembahan sarkas khas untuk anda!” (Come! Come! Come and witness circus acts made just for you!)
I tug at my uncle’s hand with a frightened look on my face. “I hate clowns,” I say, timidly. With a reassuring smile, he tightens his grip on my tiny hands. “Don’t worry, just stay close to me and you’ll be fine.” Then we enter the tent as the ring master takes to the small circular podium with a whip in place of the megaphone.
Once so synonymous with our childhood, it’s difficult to spot a circus or funfair around town anymore. So when Cre Arts Asia, Southeast Asia’s largest modern circus troupe, invited me to catch their upcoming performance, Cre, I felt a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The show will be happening at Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPaC) from Sept 29 to Oct 1.
Will there be clowns juggling while riding a unicycle, I ask, jokingly. Both Shan Nana Liew and Aifique Khaikal, creative directors for the performance, quickly shake their heads. “But there will be juggling!” enthuses Aifique before Liew chips in: “But no, there won’t be any weird looking people with big heads and small bodies to stare at though. And no animal abuse!”
Instead, they promise a spectacular display of gravity-defying performances as well as extraordinary feats of the human body. “Think light shows, flying acrobats, swinging fire balls, and enigmatic music! All these packaged in one beautiful production,” explains Aifique.
WHAT’S THE CIRCUS TO YOU?
I was only five when my uncle brought me to my first ever circus, which came to town. I recall there’d always be one every time the school holidays rolled in. And when school reopened once again, the circus would be gone, just like a midsummer night’s dream. Personally, I was never truly fond of it. This was probably due to a combination of my fear of clowns, my dislike of the muddy puddles that would often appear after the rain, and the sense of uneasiness I always experienced with strange circus performers who seemed to be constantly smiling like they knew a secret that you didn’t. Despite that, I’d still find myself returning every school holiday because I loved fishing for plastic ducks at the games tents and sitting high up on the rickety old Ferris wheel, looking out over rusty zinc rooftops.
“I remember going to the circus when I was younger with my parents. It was in Gombak and it always felt very dodgy,” recounts 29-year-old Aifique, adding: “It would always be dimly lit. I guess that
was the environment then. But nobody thought of making a fuss about it then. My favourite segment was always the motocross display that they’d usually have in the main tent.”
“I never really enjoyed the motocross act,” interjects Liew, who shares that for her, it was the flying trapeze act that never failed to excite her. However, the 42-year-old adds that her memory of the circus is pretty vague. “The only thing that I’m sure of is the fact that my parents never took me to the kind of dodgy ones (circus) that Aifique seems to have gone to. But I’ve been to the atas (high-end) ones in Genting Highlands once or twice,” she recalls.
Asked what’s the most memorable circus they’ve ever been to, the duo unanimously agree that it’s the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. “You can’t be in this industry and not attend a Cirque du Soleil. It’s like the most epic experience ever!” exclaims Aifique.
Nodding her agreement, Liew adds: “The first show I’ve ever watched is still fresh in my mind and I remember having goosebumps throughout the show. It’s very different from what you’d get from the Royal London Circus. It’s pretty magical!”
She proceeds to describe the beautiful composition and production, the clever use of stage and lighting. “We’re trying to emulate it for Cre, but not entirely because who can really copy Cirque du Soleil, right?” she postulates.
OLD VERSUS NEW
The very last time I went to a circus, I was 12. The novelty of visiting it wore off as soon as I found myself paying more attention to digitalised screens. Some say the Internet killed the circus, while others believe it’s a necessary evolution like everything else in the entertainment industry as technology steadily began to take over much of our lives.
Being a Poi artist whose signature performance sees him swinging tethered fire balls through a variety of rhythmical and geometrical patterns, Aifique acknowledges that entertainment has definitely changed vastly since the 1980s and 1990s. “That’s why we need to follow the change and modernise our acts in accordance to changing times,” he shares.
The creative directors divulge that the show will see the latest technological systems being used, such as backdrop animation and special lighting effects. “Even my team (Psychusix), they don’t only swing fire. They’ll be swinging and playing around with a lot of other modified lighted props too,” he reveals.
Although for the most part the show has been given a contemporary twist, both Liew and Aifique believe that the original romance of the circus isn’t lost. It’ll be reignited, they promise. “There’s still the beauty of the human strength and flexibility. My team (Viva Circus) will showcase fascinating aerial stunts. We’ll take to the ‘skies’, a signature attraction of the traditional circus,” shares Liew.
Smiling, she adds that all the artists come from different backgrounds. “This lends the show a richness that’s essential for the big top. It will be what a circus is —an amalgamation of talents from all walks of life.”
LIFELINE FOR THE CIRCUS
Are there many talents for a show like this in our country, I ask. Nodding, Liew is the first to reply: “I believe there’s plenty. Our cast members are actually born and bred Malaysians. The only sad thing is, they can’t find jobs here so they end up working overseas. I believe there just isn’t enough awareness and support for our art form in general. Hopefully, our modern circus troupe can help change that.”
Both Aifique and Liew also rue the lack of appreciation for the art, which they believe is what killed the circus in this country. “I remember the entrance fee used to be RM2 or RM3 per person when I was a kid,” reveals Aifique.
With such elaborate set-ups and technologically-advanced features in today’s circus, it’s not possible for circus troupes to survive if they put up such low entrance fees. However, Aifique also believes that hiking up the price too much would not be good for the cause either. People might think twice about coming. “It’s really not easy hosting a circus show,” he says, sighing.
“At the end of the day, all we ask for is your attendance and support,” says Liew, adding: “And there are some things you just need to see it for yourself. It won’t be the same as watching it from your five-inch phone screen.”
Interrupting our conversation, the waiter swoops in to serve us our lunch. Before tucking in, the duo offer their final thoughts: “Our choices in life may seem puzzling to most. But the circus has not
only changed our lives, it has also taught
us that there are infinite possibilities out there. All you need is the courage to be different. This isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life.”
As for me? Just as long as there are no clowns in sight, let us all go back to the circus.
Cre by Cre Arts Asia
WHERE Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPaC), Jalan Strachan, Sentul, KL
WHEN Sept 29 - Oct 1