The word ‘cir­cus’ con­jures up no­tions of big tops and en­slaved an­i­mals, but the grav­ity-de­fy­ing phys­i­cal prow­ess of The Dust Palace per­form­ers is giv­ing an old spec­ta­cle a hu­man-cen­tred spin.


“This is some­thing I’ve been train­ing for for a long time,” says 17-year-old Ella Ed­ward, rest­ing on the floor af­ter a spell­bind­ing con­tor­tion in the ‘bird­cage’ above us. “I def­i­nitely don’t want to stop un­til I’m world-class.” The bird­cage – a hang­ing metal ap­pa­ra­tus – is just one of many dif­fi­cult toys the per­form­ers play with at The Dust Palace, a cir­cus com­pany which also runs a school, sit­u­ated within Pen­rose’s in­dus­trial area. Ed­ward es­sen­tially grew up with the cir­cus – her fa­ther and step­mum are The Dust Palace founders Mike Ed­ward and Eve Gor­don – so wrap­ping her body in aerial silks and do­ing back bends and hand­stands within a metal cage is sec­ond na­ture.

For the other per­form­ers at The Dust Palace, cir­cus is also a way of life. Many re­hearse up to eight hours ev­ery day, and their lives are cur­rently ded­i­cated to train­ing for a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Auck­land Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra in a show ti­tled Mid­night. The fairy-tale cir­cus ex­trav­a­ganza is set to a live or­ches­tra – 14 per­form­ers are in the on­stage cast, cat­a­pult­ing and spin­ning about to a com­po­si­tion of mu­sic from clas­sics such as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Men­delssohn’s A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream.

There’s an air of barely con­trolled chaos at the re­hearsal I at­tend in Pen­rose: Jane Mieka stands in front of a mir­ror spin­ning three hula hoops about her hips, then later, three more, rais­ing her arms in the air to make her whole wig­gling body the axis upon which the six hoops spin. Nearby, Harry Adams hurls him­self across the room on bouncy stilts. Ariel Cronin pulls her­self up the silks hang­ing from above, wraps them around her legs and then drops in what looks, out the cor­ner of your eye, like a freefall to the ground be­low.

Eve Gor­don wants her per­form­ers to help break away from the cir­cus rep­u­ta­tion of big tents and trained an­i­mals. “I’m hop­ing that Mid­night will do that a lit­tle bit be­cause it’s so high art,” she says. “Ev­ery sec­ond per­son you talk to, you tell them you’re a cir­cus per­former and they’re like ‘what, are you a clown?’ or any one of those stupid jokes. What these guys do, they’re re­ally ath­letes.”

Here, we talk to the The Dust Palace per­form­ers who will ap­pear in Mid­night this month.

Eve Gor­don

35 / Founder of The Dust Palace, per­former ———

This com­pany’s your baby. How does it feel do­ing largescale pro­duc­tions like this?

Amaz­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing. Ev­ery show that we do is kind of the next level of val­i­da­tion that we need to get, you know? Just the name of cir­cus in New Zealand, it still doesn’t have a good rep­u­ta­tion. Also, we’re still a small com­pany, so each show is like this “gotta prove our­selves, gotta prove our­selves”.

How do you think you can change the rep­u­ta­tion of cir­cus within New Zealand?

I’m hop­ing that this show will do that a lit­tle bit be­cause it’s so high art, and that’s kind of the plan: to al­ways present stuff that is an al­ter­na­tive to the his­tor­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion of cir­cus, what it was, whether that be al­ter­na­tive in a risqué way or al­ter­na­tive in a high art way.

Ariel Cronin

24 / Psy­chol­ogy stu­dent, per­former ———

How is The Dust Palace break­ing away from the usual stereo­types about cir­cus?

I think what’s unique about Mike and Eve’s ap­proach is that they both came from an act­ing back­ground, so they’ve au­to­mat­i­cally come from a nar­ra­tive as op­posed to an ac­ro­batic fo­cus. That’s what re­ally drew me to The Dust Palace and drew me to cir­cus ini­tially – cir­cus aid­ing the nar­ra­tive as op­posed to be­ing sep­a­rate to the story.

What does the cir­cus com­mu­nity of­fer you?

I think when you’re do­ing things that are very chal­leng­ing, not only phys­i­cally but also emo­tion­ally – ev­ery­thing we’re do­ing is dan­ger­ous and there’s a risk in­volved – I think that builds re­la­tion­ships and ties with peo­ple that you don’t get else­where. You re­ally have to have a strong trust be­tween you in or­der to be able to train safely, so that builds a spe­cific type of bond that’s re­ally unique to per­for­mances in a cir­cus space. The cir­cus com­mu­nity does tend to at­tract a lot of mis­fits, for want of a bet­ter word, but what is beau­ti­ful about that is it’s a space of ac­cep­tance and sup­port, no mat­ter your back­ground or where you come from.

Ella Ed­ward

17 / Per­former ———

How did you be­come in­volved with The Dust

Palace? Eve [Gor­don] is my step­mum, and my dad [Mike Ed­ward] helps run the school and the classes and di­rects most of our shows now. So I started with The Dust Palace ba­si­cally as it be­gan – I was there be­cause I was the kid who was around in the stu­dios. So I started train­ing back then when I was re­ally young, but I pushed my­self re­ally hard and with the in­flu­ence of the amaz­ing per­form­ers who were around me, I got to the level I’m at now.

Jay Cle­ment

28 / The Dust Palace tu­tor and per­former ——— Why do you do cir­cus? I re­ally can’t not do it. I ex­plored pretty much all other av­enues of the pro­fes­sional side of life and none of them re­ally worked out for me – I didn’t re­ally jam out to any of them.

How do you train each day? For me per­son­ally, I have to fo­cus more on my flex­i­bil­ity – my body kind of builds mus­cle in a more rapid way, so I’ve stayed off the strength train­ing as much and I do a lot of ac­tive stretch­ing. I flip-flop be­tween aerial train­ing one day and then hand­stand train­ing the other day; I ac­tu­ally con­sider my­self more of an aeri­al­ist than a hand­stander. I get most ex­cited about aerial rope but I do aerial straps as well, but hand bal­ance gets me the most work.

Ge­off Gil­son 40 / The Dust Palace tu­tor and per­former ———

You come from a danc­ing back­ground. Do you feel like your cir­cus skills are closely re­lated to dance? Yeah to­tally, es­pe­cially the acts that I do. In this show I’m do­ing aerial straps – a duet with Eve at the end that’s es­sen­tially fly­ing around in the air and a lot of part­ner­ing like you would in dance. I have to hold on with one hand and hold her weight as well, so it’s a lot of phys­i­cal strength, but it’s the same skills as, say, tango.

Harry Adams

19 / Park­our trainer and per­former ———

How did you get into this

field? I started off com­pet­i­tive danc­ing – I did that the ma­jor­ity of my life, but I just found my­self not en­joy­ing it af­ter a while. The dance in­dus­try be­comes re­ally catty to­ward one an­other and I wasn’t into that – I just wanted to do things with like-minded peo­ple who en­joyed what they were do­ing and didn’t do it to be bet­ter than ev­ery­one. I ac­tu­ally shifted from danc­ing to park­our and free run­ning, so I started there and I’d done a bit of cir­cus stuff, but never re­alised it was some­thing you could do as a ca­reer.

What do you spe­cialise in? I do bouncy stilts – big stilts that you put on and can jump around in. It helps do­ing the park­our and free run­ning with those be­cause I can trans­fer the flips and stuff to them, so that’s awe­some. I re­ally en­joy jug­gling, as well as Ger­man wheel [ac­ro­bat­ics], park­our and free run­ning.

Reid Mcgowan

24 / Com­mer­cial real es­tate agent and per­former ———

How did you get in­volved?

I was a gym­nast for 17 years. At 21 I quit and de­cided I wanted to do some­thing else. I was coach­ing hand­stands here at the time and they said “hey do you want to start per­form­ing?” and it just went from there. Com­ing from a com­pet­i­tive back­ground, it was all for your­self, to win. But per­form­ing is for the au­di­ence. I don’t get ner­vous any­more – it’s all for ev­ery­one else so it’s re­ally cool, I re­ally en­joy it.

So it’s your full-time thing at the mo­ment?

No, I’m a com­mer­cial real es­tate agent. So I kind of lead a dou­ble life, I wear a suit to work and then come here.

So is this your cre­ative out­let? Ab­so­lutely, it keeps me fit. I’m paid to stay in shape.

Jaine Mieka

24 / The Dust Palace tu­tor and per­former ———

What do you love about cir­cus and what keeps you com­ing back here?

I love get­ting to be re­ally phys­i­cal in my body ev­ery day, and as an art form I re­ally like the sto­ry­telling as­pect of cir­cus and cir­cus the­atre. I think that’s what makes me so ex­cited about this show – us­ing the ap­pa­ra­tus and the move­ment as part of the story, not as some­thing ex­tra or as some­thing mean­ing­less.

Jo­han De Car­valho

32 / Rig­ger and per­former ———

Why do you love this sport?

It’s a good way to stay fit and I love cir­cus be­cause it’s a good way to live. I pre­fer do­ing this than be­ing be­hind a desk and do­ing an of­fice job kind of thing. I love the spark in peo­ple’s eyes when they see a cir­cus per­for­mance, be­ing so mes­merised and giv­ing them the pas­sion to try to do it as well. When I hear peo­ple say­ing “oh wow, I wish I could do that,” I say “you can do it, ev­ery­one can do what we do – it’s just the way you learn.” ●

See The Dust Palace and the Auck­land Phil­har­mo­nia Or­ches­tra’s show, Mid­night, on Thu 23 Nov

Above left The Dust Palace tu­tor and per­former Ge­off Gil­son sup­ports owner Eve Gor­don as she does the splits. Above right Jay Cle­ment in a hand­stand.

Above Ariel Cronin, left, and Ella Ed­ward per­form in the “bird­cage”, an ap­pa­ra­tus de­signed by Eve Gor­don.

Above left Jo­han De Car­valho per­fects his cyr wheel tech­niques. Above right De Car­valho and Reid Mcgowan hold Eve Gor­don as she con­torts into a back­bend.

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