The Dust Palace is giving new meaning to the art of the circus

Photography Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Way of life

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 free-fall 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 large-scale 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