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Circus Solarus

Part Two

Interviewees: Arnaldo Giordano, born 1950
          and Tricia Cooney, born 1950

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 29 May, 2009

Transcription: Glenys Murray, August 2009

 

In 2001 Patricia you were awarded the Churchill Fellowship?

Yes that’s right.

What did you do with that fellowship, where did you go?

Well the Churchill Fellowship is given to somebody who is established in their career, to go on a research tour. It’s something that you have to go overseas to do. So in 1999 I’d done a workshop in Melbourne with someone from the Trinidad Carnival. As he put up slide after slide I realised that he was showing slides of characters that we had in our repertoire. But they were traditional characters from the Trinidad Carnival. So I decided to go and explore traditional carnival parades in Europe.

In London the Notting Hill carnival has been developed by people from Trinidad. It’s the closest thing to the Trinidad Carnival outside of Trinidad.

I went and interviewed people in France and Italy. Then worked on the Notting Hill Carnival and a big lantern festival up in the north of England with Welfare State International. Circus Solarus had strong links with Welfare State so I’d wanted to go and work with those people as well.

Junior king costume designed by Ray Mahabir, created by Tricia Cooney for Notting Hill Carnival 2003

When you came back did you have lots of new ideas for performances here?

I did, it was a wonderful trip because you were seeing the best of what was over there. But you were also looking at your own practice in relationship to that. There were times when I’d think “oh our work is up here with this”. Then you’d turn the corner and you’d think “oh why don’t we just give up this is so wonderful”.

So I’ve also maintained some of those contact with people and been invited back a couple of times to work on carnival parades over there. Then I brought back skills and ideas, like some of the giant puppets and big back pack costumes that I’ve used in projects over here as well.

Now you are both borrowing from the Australian bush tradition in your work?

We do have a number of Australian characters and I think that the colour and the humour and some of the characters that we’ve developed the Australiana characters are quite Australian. I suppose there is quite a strong pantomime tradition. I went to pantomimes every year when I was young. So I suppose that’s been an influence I guess.

How do you get your material? Do you write a script, do you dream it up, do you improvise? What do you do?

Quite often we’re given a theme from the festival and then we might work out the type of costumes that we’re going to do. Then all of us will do our own costumes. Like the environmental characters, Janine originally did a character out of recycled and found objects. Then gradually we all made our own characters. So you develop a character and then you interact with other characters as that character. So a lot of the performance is fairly improvised. When it comes to some of the larger community projects we’ll develop a story line for that. We’ll often do a story board with the costumes and the big puppets or whatever and work out sometimes with the community what are going to be the components of that performance.If we’re going out as a group of characters we’ll work out what sort of rational or motivation we’ll have as we go out. We’ve just come back from a tour in Singapore. We developed a few sort of scenarios in a way. We worked out how we were going to arrive on site, a little bit of an introduction. Then we would go off and interact with people as our own characters. Then we developed a way of coming back together and continuing with a bit of a parade. We tend to all contribute to that, it’s not as if there’s any one director really.

Lyrebird costume Fisher's Ghost Festival Parade 2006
Large Puppets and Skellys in Fisher's Ghost Parade 2006
Singapore Fashion of the Future recycled paper costumes

Now where do you perform in The Hills Shire? What sort of performances have you done there?

We have performed at various times for the Orange Blossom Festival and we’ve done a few community parade projects, especially working with Kellyville High. Their drama and circus groups. We’ve performed at the Inala Festival and at I think one Australia Day event in the Hills Shire. That was a specific project, the Australia Day event, it was a Unity project. So we made a banner of where the flowers that grow in your garden had grown. Then invited people to participate in that project by putting sticky spots of where they’d come from. Just to get an idea of family backgrounds. The community projects that we’ve done I think in 1995 I realised that we were working all over Sydney, all over the state but I wasn’t working in my own backyard. Mainly I think because there didn’t seem to be a lot of projects developed through the local council. I started to promote myself to The Hills Community Aid and a few different things locally. At that time Hills Community Aid had some funding from the Western Sydney Area Assistance Scheme. They had some funding to do craft exhibition, working with all the local multicultural groups. We developed an exhibition that was held in the Council Chambers called Celebration, Culture and Craft.

It started out just as an exhibition but pretty soon became performances and food and the whole range of culture really. Then out of that one of the groups that I was working with The Indian Women’s Social Group they wanted to do more projects. I did a cross cultural quilting project. Someone came and taught them quilting, I helped with design and then they learnt traditional Indian embroidery as well. So they combined the Western quilting techniques with the Indian Embroidery techniques and I was there to help them put their own stories into that quilt project. There was a community cultural mapping project off Old Northern Road where we worked with different community groups to create their own map of where they went and what they used along Old Northern Road. I got involved in various youth arts projects I guess. We’ve worked in the Powerhouse Museum since the Discovery Centre opened at the corner of Showground Road. We’ve also done various corporate events. I suppose the biggest of those was the opening parade for the Rouse Hill Town Centre in 2008 and lots of performances for Rouse Hill Town Centre.

Indian Women's Quilt 1997

Is there enough support for the arts and craft in The Hills Shire?

It seems to depend on particular people with vision in the local Council. In the twenty one years that Circus Solarus had been going and we’ve been living in the shire, I think we’ve only had two people working in Council that have developed those projects. Whereas with Blacktown Council we perform at their festival and do some wonderful community based projects. Every year we’re working with them. Campbelltown the same. We’ve seen such a development of the arts in that area.

The same with Parramatta.

Parramatta as well.

Parramatta is leading the field.

So we’re still, although we live in the shire we tend to work outside it unfortunately.

I think your short answer is no, there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on maybe appreciating the arts in the region.

It’s not because our focus has exclusively been outside the shire. I’ve been on the Hills Arts Network. I’ve contributed to almost every cultural plan that has been up and running. I, with a group of parents we started the Wrights Road Community Centre using an old cottage that was there before the shopping centre was developed in Wrights Road. It’s not as if we haven’t tried too…

Australlia Day Unity Banner 2004

It’s not just waiting at home for the phone to ring you’ve got to be involved.

I think they’re just about to do about the third Cultural Plan. They seem to put all this money into cultural plans and then they just sit on the shelf, unfortunately.

Oh well there’s room for improvement?

Yes that’s right.

Tell me a bit more about that community mapping project that you did on Old Northern Road?

That was a project through the East Bend Resource Centre. They actually applied for the project funding. I worked because of my skills in community consultation and engagement. We worked with various groups. There was a local Indigenous elder who developed an Indigenous map of Old Northern Road. We worked with a group of artists who painted in the bush in various spots, so they did their map of where they went and what they did. We worked with descendents of a settlers group, who did their own map. There was a bush care group and so at the end of the project we had an interactive exhibition for one of the Orange Blossom Festivals. All of these maps were displayed. They were screen printed onto core flute with different historical facts and photos and various things. People who came and visited the exhibition could add their own stories to that exhibition.

People sometimes say “oh festivals, they only last for one day”. I think that in times like we are now. Once upon a time the whole community would go to church. Things are so disparate now that sometimes it feels like that the only time the whole community comes out and gathers to celebrate something is at the local festival or Australia Day or any of the large public events. It does feel like it’s an important thing to foster. I think artists need to be involved in these things. Otherwise it just ends up being nearly commercial.

Trucks in a parade.

Or jumping castles and balloons.

It engages you because you see three hundred cars go by but they’ve put nothing into it. I mean Carnivale every community in Europe was involved in that and they weren’t paid they were just… before Carnivale they would spend two or three months all meeting in the afternoons and creating floats.

Bundeluk on right with Windsor High Aboriginal Dance Group at Rouse Hill Town Centre opening parade Mar 08

Now on the Rouse Hill opening which you did quite a production of, tell me what happened there?

We were commissioned by a large promotions company George P Johnson to design and produce the costumes. To book all the street theatre for the Rouse Hill Parade. We worked quite closely with them. Working with their marketing team. If you haven’t been to Rouse Hill there are four different segments of the shopping centre based around a couple of streets that go through it. Each of those shopping segments has got a different colour and a different theme in the design of the centre. It’s quite an innovative design. The colours were red for history and indigenous culture. They were purple for the entertainment section. Orange for food and green because there’s quite a large environmental component in the design of the centre. We worked with those colours and those themes. We designed a parade that was in those four segments. They also wanted to connect with the community through the parade. In each of those segments we had a community group involved. Rather than just asking dancers to come along in purple costumes we worked with the community groups.

They got to work with professional performers developing performances and costumes that they could then keep. They got a donation in some form or another as well. For the red theme we worked with a local indigenous artist and Windsor High School Indigenous Unit. They made a giant rainbow serpent puppet and choreographed some traditional dances and songs. We had a smoking ceremony to open the parade as well with one of the local elders. For the green environmental theme Circus Solarus worked with Kellyville High School Drama Group.

Kellyville High Circus group in Rouse Hill Town Centre Parade Mar 2008

They developed a performance. Three of the segments had a large box that was green or purple or orange. All of the advertising was called “out of the box”. This was something that they incorporated in their advertising. For the environmental theme we went and did percussion and costume workshops and performance workshops to develop a little parade segment around the environmental theme. For the fresh food theme the Kellyville High Circus group worked with professional jugglers. We made costumes with them so they were all juggling chefs. They were juggling lemons and egg whisks and spinning mops and pois with tea towels on them. The box that we had, on one side it was orange and when you turned it round it was a little painted scene in a kitchen in there. Then for the purple theme we again worked with professional performers and the local dance group. They had a choreographed dance. There is a local group of performers called the “Flying Pigs” and we had a big purple box that opened up like the ballerina in the music box. The pigs were all dressed as ballerinas and then the little ballerinas were doing a dance as well.

They performed “Swine Lake”.

“Swine Lake” that’s right.

When I’ve worked overseas the people I’ve worked with overseas have had the opportunity to design the whole parade. All the costumes and all the performances in it. This was the first time in Australia that we’ve had that opportunity to do that.

Community Stormwater Pollution Awareness Show Sydney Olympics 2000

How did the audience go for that?

It was very successful and the Rouse Hill Town Centre was really pleased with it as well. For their Santa Parade last year they brought back quite a number of the community groups to perform a number of the things that they’d done in the parade.

So has Circus Solarus changed direction in any way in the last few years?

I suppose the community education campaigns have been the main new thing that we’ve developed. With the environmental awareness that seems to be the main new thing that’s developed. We’ve been doing pedestrian campaigns for the City of Sydney and for Rouse Hill Town Centre and Parramatta and Marrickville. Then we do a lot of environmental activities and performances at various sustainable fairs.

Tell me something about the exhibition here at the Parramatta Heritage Centre? How much of your work is represented and how do you feel about it?

Well it spans the last twenty one years, all our work really. I think what it seems to have done is, people who knew us for particular characters that they’d seen at a festival. We’ve had quite a few people come through and didn’t realise the depth and breadth of the work that we’ve done. I’ve noticed that people’s attitudes have changed. From seeing you as a guy that they’ve seen at the festival clowning around to see all the other projects we’ve been involved with. With communities all over the place.

I think as well it’s such an ephemeral art form. As Arnaldo said you see us in one character at a festival and may not see a lot else that we do. There hasn’t been this kind of documentation of the work. This exhibition focuses on our work but there are a lot of other groups in Australia who are working in this way as well. It’s not necessarily being documented. It’s not necessarily being funded by the Australia Council so it’s not getting into the journals. I think it is an art form that’s got a tradition and has got a lot of links with other cultures. It was partly what motivated us to put something on the record in a sense.

Circus Solarus exhibition invitation front 2009

There are a lot of performing arts high schools now around, they practice juggling or whatever but they don’t have a lot of experience with professionals. And see that it is a real job and that you can do that as a career. These schools are pumping out a lot of kids who just don’t go anywhere. If you’re dedicated and that’s what you want to do we’ve been encouraging all these people to continue doing it. If it’s a passion for you, whatever it is that you do then you continue with it. If it’s not really a passion then you go and do something else.

Circus Solarus exhibition invitation back 2009

So what do you think is likely to be the future of your art form? Do you see any directions, what’s going to happen do you think?

Well we’ve just restructured as a not-for-profit incorporated association. We’re trying to get a production space. Parramatta Council is supporting us in that. We’re also, I suppose because we’ve been going such a long time, we’re developing some seminars in conjunction with the Australian Centre of Event Management. We’re holding one of them here for local government event organisers in July. I can imagine that if we’re able to get a space we’ll be able to train up more people to hold more of these developmental talks and seminars. Also apply for project funding that we’re developing rather than work on other people’s projects.

Very often councils don’t see that contributing to the arts has any cash return. Whereas festivals in Europe that have been going for one hundred and fifty years. There’s a massive cash return because they’ve been supported for a while and then they become self funding. You do have to nurture a festival. You can start a festival on anything, raising cockroaches if you want. If you support that over time it will become established and a lot of those European festivals like Rio and Viareggio and a lot of the French ones. They invest millions of dollars into the festival but the return is that millions multiplied by twenty. It’s like the Mardi Gras I suppose. There was objection to the Mardi Gras but because it brings so many people into Sydney from all over the world. It’s on the map and it’s the same with a lot of the festivals here. Very often they’re supported for a short period of time. That’s one of the problems and then they’re abandoned. Whereas if they were supported for another few years then they would be off and running and put Baulkham Hills on the map.

 

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