By BRUCE DENNILL
Journey Beyond: Symphonic Circus / Creative Director: Brent Van Rensburg / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Zip Zap is a donation-funded Cape Town-based circus school that offers training in the circus arts (for free) to underprivileged and vulnerable youngsters, giving them valuable skills and direction. For the role it plays in social transformation alone, it is hugely important, but the performers who benefit form the institution are also – as confirmed by their work in productions like this one – dramatic powerhouses, able to use their skills in a ways that impress in isolation as well as complementing other aspects of a production (such as music or contemporary dance).
Journey Beyond: Symphonic Circus is an ambitious, multi-faceted production that places the Zip Zap cast in front of the Johannesburg Youth Orchestra (conducted by Eddie Clayton) and also features vocal soloists Zolani Mahola, Timothy Moloi and Zita Pretorius.
There is a nominal storyline following a nameless lead character (the engaging Jacobus Claassen) who discovers the magic of the circus as it unfolds around him, but the piece is essentially a well-paced variety show, with everyone involved enjoying a moment in the spotlight.
Layered interpretations of pop hits (Kiss From A Rose, Head Above Water, Dreaming Out Loud, Roxanne, The Crossing) are scattered between standards from musicals old and new (The Greatest Show, I Dreamed A Dream, Defying Gravity) and well-known classical pieces (William Tell Overture, Flight Of The Bumblebee, Asturias, Rondo Alla Turka). This means there is something for all musical tastes, but also to different opportunities for orchestral arrangements and for the elegant choreography of Adele Blank.
Freshlyground’s hit I’d Like, sung by Mahola, gets a thrilling lift from the orchestra towards the end, and the arrangement of Roxanne takes the Police’s wailing original and makes it so subtle you identify it by feel rather than ear.
If there is one consistent criticism, it is that the circus performers don’t get quite enough stage time, though the scheduling of pieces performed by either the orchestra alone or with one of the featured soloists may have to do with giving the athletes time to recover from their regular exertions, which would be fair enough. Two of the most charismatic, impressive performers are Jason Barnard and Phelelani Ndakrokra, both experts in several disciplines, with the former displaying bewildering co-ordination in his juggling act and the latter showing incredible talent on both the Cyr wheel and straps.
Allowing for the relative inexperience of many of the performers onstage (the occasional tuning issue with an instrument; a changeover between songs that could be slicker; a juggler dropping a club once or twice), Journey Beyond is just that – a foray into a world of wonder, where beautiful music and precisely controlled movement exhilarate and inspire.