Toxic masculinity seems to be in the spotlight in contemporary society and the arts should reflect that society.

So, while it’s not unusual to find concepts of masculinity discussed in the arts, you don’t get the issue aired quite so much through the physicality of contemporary circus.

The world premiere of a show by renowned circus ensemble Circa’s new outpost in Far North Queensland, Circa Cairns, explores this subject matter with daring movement and acrobatics, all seen through an Indigenous lens.

Circa Cairns artistic director Harley Mann’s personal story of being raised by a single mum imbues the piece, combining vigorous physical stunts with a haunting live music score from central Australia – from First Nations female quartet Kardajala Kirridarra.

Mann says he wanted to create a show that grappled with modern masculinity and the inherent conflict in families.

“I grew up in a family with a single mum, with no relationship to my father, with no desire for a relationship either,” Mann says. “Growing up in a First Nations context we know that family isn’t just mother and father. We have aunties and uncles and all sorts of different people playing fundamental roles.

“This makes me ask questions such as, okay, well, what is masculinity? Where does it come from and what does it mean now?”

In Circa Cairns’ new show Son, four male First Nations acrobats juxtapose striking physical feats with tempered cultural dance to challenge the Western model of family and to celebrate culture and queerness.

Kardajala Kirridarra highlight the different powers at play by providing a soundtrack that represents the maternal voice, sung in both Mudburra and English.

Mann says the live music score is crucial in bringing the many layers of the story into a cohesive whole.

“When I was conceiving the show and thinking about what it was, it was like, great, it’s about masculinity, it’s about the relationship between fathers and sons,” he says. “That’s the show.

“But sitting in it a little bit longer and thinking about it more and more, I realised I was neglecting and forgetting my mother and the role that my mum played in shaping me as a person.

“And then, more widely, the role of mothers in informing masculinity or creating space for guiding young men to inform their own masculinity.”

Mann says he decided to engage Kardajala Kirridarra to “sing the work into existence so that we could create a space where the maternal voice could create a passage and a safety and a healing for the men on stage”.

He says while it may seem incongruous using contemporary circus to illustrate such complex concepts – it fits perfectly with First Nations storytelling.

“Our storytelling doesn’t necessarily follow a linear western progression,” he says. “It has the ability to be cyclical and it’s kind of like that feeling of when you’re sitting yarning and elders are talking. At the start of the conversation, you might not know what the point is but as you sit and listen and let time take it and unfold things that you need to hear, the answers that you need to know reveal themselves.

“And I think that’s the same about circus from a logical point of view. There’s no reason for our acrobats or for people to flip and do incredible feats of strength in front of us.”

He says this allows themes to be explored a more visceral way.

Mann says he is thrilled to bring this story from Far North Queensland to QPAC and that contemporary circus is the perfect medium for this mode of storytelling.

“We’re always shouting from the treetops that circus is really fun and there’s not enough black fellas doing it.”

Circa Cairns new show Son, Playhouse, QPAC, November 22-26

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