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It's a small leap from sport to circus


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Ten years of elite sport helped prepare Britt Portelli for a career in the circus.

Now a member of Circa Ensemble and bound for Adelaide with its touring circus-cabaret spectacle Wunderkammer, Portelli started doing artistic gymnastics at just six years old, later switching to aerobic gymnastics and then synchronised swimming.

She represented Australia internationally, including at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, before retiring at 18 and then enrolling at the National Institute of Circus Arts.

“I trained from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, for three years and graduated with a Bachelor of Circus Arts,” she tells InDaily.

“So I have a piece of paper saying I’m a certified clown, pretty much.”

Portelli was offered a contract with Circa, and has been performing with the Brisbane-based company for around four years. The troupe tours for between eight and 11 months each year.

“The different thing with sport to circus is that with sport you are generally peaking for one or two events, so you have an on and off season, whereas at Circa you are touring for most of the year, so you never have an off season.

“The saying the show must go on is very true … Mental preparation is constant, so there are no peaks and troughs.

“But I do still love it. Listening to the genuine gasps and applause; you can see the occasional tear, hear the pure laughter.

“The other thing I love about circus is the beauty of humanity and the different bodies. In circus, body shapes don’t matter; it’s the performance that matters.”

Wunderkammer, which translates to “cabinet of curiosities”, is described as a heady cocktail of circus, cabaret and vaudeville, but without the usual elaborate costumes. Seven acrobats, under the artistic direction of Yaron Lifschitz, perform a series of acrobatic vignettes showcasing disciplines such as the hoola hoops, trapeze, hand stands, tumbling and pyramids, with a comedic element throughout.

“If you imagine the old-school flip books, this is what Wunderkammer does,” Portelli says. “It adds the elements of vaudeville, traditional circus, cabaret and burlesque, but puts them together in a way the audience isn’t used to seeing.

“It takes the audience on a journey that’s pretty unstable, so they’re not sure what they’re seeing, but by the end they will feel they know the individual acrobats and have been through a range of emotions.”

Portelli, who also runs an aerobics gymnastics program in Melbourne, says another key difference between competing in sport and performing in the circus is that the latter doesn’t travel with a medical team. Yet despite the high physical demands of the routines, she has never suffered any major injuries.

“We do know how to fall really well.”

Circa will present Wunderkammer at Her Majesty’s Theatre from October 1-4.

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