Amid the mirrors, stained glass and velvet curtains of the 1920s Spiegeltent a band of acrobatic, fire-eating, sword-swallowing, tap-dancing performers are trifling with audience’s hearts.
Coney Island fire-eater Heather Holliday winks coyly between mouthfuls of flame. Burly blokes and cocktail-wielding women are mouth agape as Antonio Vargas Montiel, a muscular Spanish acrobat in tight black jeans, balances his entire body atop one tall, thin pole.
Everyone watching Limbo, a dark, thumping and exotic circus-cabaret coming to Spiegeltent Wollongong in April, is smitten by its cast – a reaction its director, Scott Maidment, wanted from the show’s beginning.
“Someone once said to me, ‘I think you’ve created the first bisexual show’,” he says. “People fall in love with the boys and with the girls in Limbo.
“When we first did the show five years ago someone told me their 12-year-old daughter thought it was like Alice In Wonderland while the people on the other side thought it was the sexiest date night they had ever seen.
“It’s sexy without being sexual. It’s not sleazy or sordid. That’s the tightrope I like to balance on. Audiences fall in love with the performers. They get a shiver.”
Limbo’s proximity to the audience is snug. The goosebumps on Holliday’s legs are clear when she drags a flaming torch along her thigh. Sweat flings through the air when Australian tap-dancer Hilton Denis pirouettes bare-chested on the show’s nearly two metre-high stage.
Everything in Limbo, which is set in a netherworld between earth, heaven and hell, is high above spectators or brushing down into their faces.
The nine-strong cast, which also features Canadian hand to hand experts Nicolas Jelmoni and Charlotte O’Sullivan, aerialist Marco Motta from Brazil, Australian musician Mick Stuart and New York City musical director and composer Sxip Shirey, are like gods strutting on a narrow catwalk between each act.
“They’re not playing a character,” Maidment says. “They’re a heightened version of themselves. That’s one of the things the performers like when they work with me. The audiences like it too because here are humans with amazing talents but they have two arms and two legs just like you and I do.”
Their flirting skills are as magnificent as their knife-throwing, body-bending, music-making or ability to sail down a five-metre pole like they are skidding along a footpath.
“The interaction between performer and audience is more important in my show than what acts they’re actually doing,” Maidment says. “I’d love it if you feel the sweat of a performer or they’re standing next to you or winking at you. Everybody feels a little bit special for a bit, that they’re part of the show.
“And, unlike Cirque du Soleil where you can’t tell the difference between one performer and the next, I really want the audience to engage with the individual personalities of the performers.
Maidment, founder of Strut ’n Fret Productions, created the show in 2013. During its season for Merrigong Theatre in Wollongong, Limbo will close in on 900 performances after sell-out runs at the Sydney Festival, Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe and tours across Europe.
The show’s genesis came from Maidment poring through Shirey’s new and old songs and creating acts to match. The music, a blend of hip-hop, brass band and New Orleans sounds, is visceral, heart-pumping stuff, with every performer also playing an instrument on stage.
The live band, led by Shirey in a feathered white suit with sunglasses and megaphone, plays more than 50 instruments. Some are conventional (drums), some semi-conventional (a dub-step sousaphone, an African thumb piano built by Stuart), and many are complete inventions, such as Shirey’s collection of bicycle bells stuck on a candlestick made by singer Amanda Palmer and her husband author Neil Gaiman.
“Our shows usually have a much smaller cast than the big circus acts but the performers feel a lot more ownership of the show because they’re part of the creation,” Maidment says. “And they, in turn, are up-close-and personal with audiences. I love that. Feel the sweat!”