German Wheel_EmpireCircus as a form of entertainment goes back millennia, at least. It probably originated in Greece, and relied on horses and chariots to fire the crowd. But the concept of the Big Top started in America and was revolutionised by P.T. Barnum, who introduced freaks and showmanship into the mix.

These days, we’ve largely done away with the more perverse aspects of circus and are left with the truly wondrous. And after the domination of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, it seems the Yanks have regained the ascendency. That is if Empire has anything to do with it.

Spiegeltents may be everywhere at the moment – there are three in our city right now – but by God they make for good venues. Especially for a show such as this; raunchy, sexy and hilarious, it’s perfectly pitched and effortlessly entertaining. The two things a circus needs to stand out in the modern era are attitude and evocation, and Empire has both in spades.

The attitude is comfortably edgy, and if that seems an oxymoron in print it isn’t in practice. Our hosts Oscar and Fanny [Jonathan Taylor and Anne Goldman], the closest thing we have to Ringmasters, get us in the mood with some risqué banter and vaudevillian moves before the first act arrives.

The Gorilla Girls [Ekaterina Rudenko, Alona Stekolinkova and Alina Reutskawhile] are acrobats, and there is nothing apish about them. Like incredibly flexible Victoria’s Secret models, they dazzle while they sizzle.

Half Naked Asian Dude Wearing Pigtails [Yasuaki Yoshikawa] is extraordinarily precise on the German Wheel and Carrot Man [Vlad Ivashkin] and Lime Green Lady [Aiusha Khadzh Khamed] are sublime in their adagio. Polka Dot Woman [Mariiea Beisembetova] and Blue Tarpoleon [Denis Petaev] push trust to its logical conclusion with a rollerskating routine that is thrilling and dangerous.

But perhaps the most incredible moment of the night is left to the finale, with 3D Graffiti Guy [Memet Bilgin Rigolo] performing Sanddom Balancing Act. An exercise in discipline and concentration, it has a mirrored tent full of people utterly transfixed. The ending is guaranteed to leave you shaking your head in wonder.

As far as evocation goes, Empire conjures a distinctly New York vibe, aided enormously by the piano bar chanteuse Miss Purple [Victoria Matlock]. The red velvet, the smoky lighting and the New York skyline props all contribute to the sultry air.

I’d have liked the offbeat personas that the cast work hard to establish early on to have carried through to the acts, but maybe it’s too much to ask  acrobats to wear complex costumes while spinning and throwing each other into the air. Regardless, it’s a heady night out, and not one to miss.

Spiegeltent – Rooftop at Crown, Whiteman Street, Southbank
Performance: Friday 4 April 2014 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 11 May 2014
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au

For more information, visit: www.empireaustralia.com for details.

Image: Yasuaki Yoshikawa on the German Wheel

Review: Tim Byrne