I’ve never been to watch the Zip Zap Circus in Cape Town. I’ve known of its existence, especially since it moved into its ‘tent’ just behind Artscape. Who wouldn’t. What a great space, all you see from the N1/N2 fly-over above Table Bay Boulevard is the dome to your left, the words Zip Zap emblazoned for all to view. It is a home and enviable advertising space all in one.
And let me tell you there is some serious circus magic at work within the dome’s perimeters. On nearing the circus, the children (some of them a little older than the term ‘child’ will allow, but still young enough to be deemed youth) begin to weave their spell on visitors straight away.
Zebras juggle, boys on stilts make flamboyant announcements about your arrival at Zip Zap, in a heavily foreign accent, little girls, their hair in bunches, their eyes adorned with glitter make-up, stand ready to plonk a golden sticker on to your chest in a totally unaffected and happy way, whilst you fumble in your bag for the print-out that proves you’ve already bought a ticket via email, and the line that extends forever behind you makes unhappy noises at your inability to move, already!
The dome inside is dark, spotlights send streams of dust-laden brilliance cascading from on high, the stage is already alive with a totally relaxed and uninhibited singer, who croons as if we’ve just walked into a French smoke-laden bistro, and right next to us there is a hot dog stand emitting the unmistakable stench of tomato sauce and mustard when applied to hot viennas. My five-year old doesn’t know where to look there is so much happening.
Within all of this ‘theatre’ the southern suburbs mums and their progeny look distinctly out of place. This is another world. We’re only briefly guests, whilst we pile in, wiggling our way along rows of plastic chairs, trying to find a spot where the stage is actually visible – not that this matters too much, as much of the ‘action’ takes place in a space somewhere halfway between the floor and the dome’s ceiling.
This is the world of lively, inexhaustible fervour for the stage. This is where you see what children, their talent unleashed and honed, are capable of. And when the show begins, I’m blown away.
We’re here to see The Caretaker, an original Zip Zap Circus School show, choreographed by Adele Blank, of the Free Flight Dance Company (anyone who has been involved in theatre or has their finger on the pulse of dance in South Africa knows who this fine choreographer is).
Just after my brother-in-law and sister push their way past us, send our brood to the very front right under the lip of the stage so that they will see everything, and chairs are swung this way and that to accommodate the growing crowd, I learn that Zip Zap shows have always been stupendous, but this is the first time that Adele Blank has been involved. I settle back in the knowledge that this time around, the audience is in for a surprise. If you’ve ever watched anything before by Adele, you’ll know what I mean.
The show takes place principally on an enormous scaffolding, that allows the performers a storey or two of space in which to pose, dance and from which to jump. Add to this a couple of red ribbons, a swing or two, a couple of rather flexible looking poles and a mat or two, some juggling batons, and circus theatre comes to life.
The Caretaker has a rough story that goes something like: caretaker guy chases homeless trolley guy back and forth across stage; in-between chases are dance/circus numbers that not only entertain, they sweep the audience into a frenzy.
The first number to achieve this is the incredible ‘red ribbon’ number, where young Sabine van Rensburg monkey climbs two thick red ribbons that hang suspended from a pulley in the middle of the stage. From here she moves herself into enviable positions that usually involve the splits, and then winds herself up in knots from which she hurls herself down from, but still manages to remain in, the ribbons.
Heart-in-mouth is the only way to describe one’s reaction, and yet, the young performer is so confident that there is no safety net beneath her, only a couple of ‘strong’ guys dancing below her that one hopes would get there in time if she fell, God forbid.
This piece seems to set the tone for the rest of the show. Two more performers, Portia Kewana and Andiswa Nkebendu, mesmerise as they clamber all over one another to a piece by Evanescence, whilst suspended from the ceiling on a swing. There are a couple of death-defying moments in here too. They’re strong performers.
The show is filled with memorable scenes. There are gumboot dancers, a scene in which young unicyclists take to the stage, bounce up and down stairs and skip under skipping ropes to a rather appropriate Michael Jackson piece, group scenes that involve ingenious choreography to co-ordinate everyone, and three little girls, Isobel Rossouw, Jemma Nelson and Jade Palmer, on a high swing who mime to a classic piece from Annie.
Another number that stood out for me in particular was homeless guy Siyabonga Swelindawo’s pole number together with Sibusiso Mbula. Two rather rubbery looking poles were effortlessly scaled in various gravity-defying, rhythmic ways that included slides, slips, hand-overs, twists and jumps choreographed to perfection.
Arnold Mutlane took to the centre of the dome’s ceiling in a trapese swing act that had all of us sitting with our heads back, mouths open. His finale twist and roll jump back onto his swing was incredible.
In-between all of this, mime artist José do Rego surreptitiously and repeatedly crosses the stage, carrying a chair or various musical instruments that finally make sense when he does his own thoroughly riotous number that involves the playing of various musical instruments. He is incredibly gifted, funny and authentic.
The last number involves the caretaker, Lizo James, and graceful Tamryn van Eyssen, also doing amazing stunts from suspended ropes. Tamryn, who has been with the Zip Zap for nineteen years, helps teach the children and runs the outreach programme for children in the townships, is on her way to the Centre National des Arts du Cirque in France, and the performance I watched was her last.
At the heart of all this ‘theatre’ is an incredible passion, confidence and feeling of camaraderie that one would be hard-pressed to find in any professional circus act. As Brent van Rensburg and Laurence Esteve, husband and wife team at the heart of Zip Zap, say: ‘With a little bit of circus magic, anything is possible.”
The last performance of The Caretaker was on Mon 8 August.
Photographs in this article courtesy of and © Irene McCullagh Photography