People...I’m not a fan of circuses. I always assume they’re going to be awkward and kitschy. To me "circus" evokes images of animals doing shit they don't want to do and awkward audience participation that I don't want to do. Circus is meant to be short hand for "fun" but to be honest I lump them into the same categories as clowns. No one actually likes them and I don't understand why they still exist. So when a friend told me she was taking me to a circus themed show I tried to think of a reason to become suddenly and irredeemably unwell. Fortunately for me though I couldn’t contract bubonic plague in time and so I attended Rouge with the worst possible expectations.
Let me give you some context for my experience of Rouge. I recently had to jam up the dosage on my brain medication to make me stop doing the leaky sad face thing quite as frequently. This has been a uniformly positive experience, with one glaring exception. It has rendered me more or less dead below the waist. I went and saw Thor: Ragnarok and barely got a tingle.
Let's just say that Rouge managed to fix this situation right the fuck up.
By the time intermission came I’d been doing so many kegels I was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. At the close of the performance all I could hear was my vagina screaming at me that I needed to launch myself onto the nearest performer and grind myself into oblivion. With all of this in mind, let's see if I can recall anything else beyond the fugue of lust that overwhelms me every time I now think about Rouge.
I was lucky enough to see the show while they were in Melbourne performing at the Spiegeltent. In case you’re not familiar with the venue, it’s basically a turn of a the century style circus tent made of timber and stained glass. And it perfectly set the scene for the performance. The costumes and performances in Rouge are evocative of a time gone by, but the execution is modern and inclusive. When addressing the audience the MC acknowledged people outside the gender binary. And from the first act it was made clear that we should throw out all expectations of hetero-normativity; which was pretty much when I had my first orgasm of the evening.
The first half of the show is sexy in the subtle way that most acrobatic performances are. You’re made intimately aware of how close the performer’s bodies are to each other. How effortlessly attractive they all are. How flexible they are. You can’t help but imagine them having sex and how great they'd look while doing it.
But the longer I watched the more I remembered the part of circus shows that I actually enjoy. The excitement of watching people perform things I've never seen before. It's the same feeling you get from watching an illusionist pull a rabbit out of a hat. You don't know how it's done, you don't understand why anyone would dedicate their life to figuring out how to do it, and you know you'll never be able to do it yourself. But you're so glad that this person exists and you get to watch them be awesome.
Watching physical performers like the cast of Rouge is like watching the Olympic Games. You know that what you're seeing is the human body at its most perfect; challenging what we think it's capable of. When you see Annalise flying through the air dressed like a harlequin doll, it's hard not to feel your heart pounding in your chest; there are no special effects here, no safety nets. This shit is live!
When Paul Westbrook performs on the hoop and you see him recreate a living Vitruvian Man, watching as every muscle in his body works in unison to keep him suspended and perfectly sculpted, you can't help but feel awe. Not just because anyone with a heartbeat would love to have him fuck them six ways from Sunday, but because he's turned his body into a canvas for the most beautiful works of art.
It's not just the physical performances though; the operatics of Isabel Hertaeg are reminiscent of the first time I saw the Diva perform in the Fifth Element. I can't help but listen and wonder how a person could teach their voice to make these beautiful sounds (especially her final crescendo).
The acts that are played straight don’t lose their sex appeal. They're the post coital cigarette at midnight, with dim lighting floating in through an open window. You're left feeling sensuous tingles across your body, like you’ve experienced something intimate and you know the sensation is going to linger for a few days.
That's what Rouge does brilliantly, and what a lot of burlesque often forgets these days. Laughter and titillation are fabulous and should make up the bulk of your show, but it's also okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to remind the audience to feel something. Rouge doesn't shy away from either of these things and manages to balance them perfectly with the humour and raunch. Even their statements on feminism are brilliantly on point and succinctly made.
Tara Silcock performs as a musical number with hoola hoops as a sexy lamp. If you're not familiar with "Sexy Lamp" feminist theory it's kind of like the Bechdel-Wallace Test but taken a step further. If you can replace the lead female in your story with a sexy lamp and have the plot remain unchanged, then you've failed to create a female character with any agency (want to see how it looks; check out our Feminist Fairytale). Seems like a low bar, right? You'd be surprised how much media fails it spectacularly.
Tara's performances in this narrative featured amazing costumes, as well as song choices including lyrics about waiting for someone to come and turn her on - superficially it was a pun about a lamp, but the story evolves across different acts. Tara reappears later with less clothes and does an amazing burlesque performance of self-discovery (the lamp has achieved sentience and found it's "on" switch) much like most young women discovering their own sexual agency. The performance is so high energy, so passionate and executed with such abandon that it can't help but leave you feeling elated and empowered about your own masturbatory habits.
The moment that left me with the goosebumps that just wouldn't quit, was when Annalise performed an elegant acrobatic solo while sharing the stage with Tara and Isabel.
The song choice was a piece of music set to the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her TED Talk "We should all be Feminists". Watching the strength of Annalise's body, while Tara and Isabel stood like an Amazonian honour guard beside her, was enough to make me tear up a little. They concluded the act with Tara and Isabel stepping forward to help lift Annalise up, a silent statement on how we as women are strongest when we work together. All while the amazing words of Adichie echoed through the tent.
All of these brilliant acts were interspersed between some of the most kickass acrobatics and physical comedy, care of Paul Westbrook. His dance performances were a spectacular combination of comedy and raw sex appeal. Even the moments when he was standing in the wings or handing over props provided him with ample material to be hilarious and engaging.
Where Paul brought spectacle, Andre Augustus brought a sensual smoulder. His work with Annalise was consistently wonderful and I found it evocative of a bygone era's circus strongman (even his tattoos are distractingly beautiful).
Speaking purely for my vagina though, every time Chris Carlos stepped on stage was the moment I lost my ability to remember my own name. His showmanship and charisma managed to come across in a way I didn't think possible for a character with no dialogue. It says a lot that while he was balancing chairs up to the ceiling and doing handstands, he could still get a response from the audience with a smile or a raised eyebrow. His fire eating performance was captivating, and not just because we were seated inside an incredibly flammable wooden structure.
But, let's be real for a moment; I'm not an art critic. I don't know fancy words like transcendent and juxtaposed. I'm just a lowly smut peddler who enjoys performances that embrace and celebrate human sexuality. So you'll understand my unbridled delight when Tara emerged on stage with a bullwhip, cracking it like Catwoman. And how my delight escalated when Paul, Chris and Andre emerged on stage costumed as BDSM unicorns. Human unicorns! Ridiculously handsome men strutting around like ponies while a fabulous lady cracks a whip at them...if you aren't turned on by this you might want to consult a physician, because you're probably clinically dead.
Rouge closed out with an amazing nudie run by Tara and Paul, a scence of operatic cunninglingus, and the entire cast performing as sexy lamps. My nipples have been hard ever since. The entire production was directed by the genius that is Elena Kirschbaum, who I will now be employing on retainer for all of my future "home movies".
If people can book circuses for kid’s birthday parties, Rouge is the show you should book as entertainment for your upcoming orgy. Everything in the show is performed with a wink and the kind of smile that makes you want to drop your knickers and have a fiddle.
So if you get the chance to see Rouge be prepared to applaud until your hands are numb (which incidentally will make it that much easier to imagine the cast when you're masturbating later). All of their upcoming performances will be listed on their Facebook Page. And I personally will be waiting with bated breath (and stiff fingers) until they return to Melbourne.
Rouge The Show: 5 Stars
That is all.
You may go now.