Cirque cabaret puts a futuristic twist on Homer’s epic tale

Deep in the heart of industrial Penrose, at the headquarters of Auckland cirque exponents The Dust Palace, performers Eve Gordon and Rochelle Mangan are perched either side of an aerial hoop - a lyra - choreographing a delicate dance with a grace and ease that belies how difficult the act is.

If we mere mortals attempted such a feat, we'd more likely pull muscles we didn't know we had before crashing down to the padded floor below. But as soon as they're done, Gordon and Mangan spring effortlessly across the floor to watch a video playback recorded on a strategically placed iPad.

It allows them to ensure consistency when they repeat it - many times - later. It is technology used in the service of a much older artform, which could sum up the first show The Dust Palace has produced in two years for an Auckland audience.

Called Ithaca, it's a cirque cabaret inspired by Homer's Odyssey with a twist. This re-telling of the epic Greek tale is set in 2292 when Odysseus (Mike Edward) leads a rag-tag crew of soldiers home across space. His mission? To be reunited with his love, Penelope (Gordon), on his home planet of Ithaca.

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It's a space odyssey with all the epic love duets, god-like fights, siren songs and cyclops of the original. There are also robots, extra-terrestrials, stellar costumes and out-of-this-world cirque, including trapeze, lyra (the aerial hoop), hand-balancing, toss-the-girl, strap and rope (corde lisse) acts which see the cast of nine strong soar through space.

Ithaca, named for the Odysseus' island home, was created when The Dust Palace performed a corporate show a year or so back featuring couture-type costumes inspired by the likes of David Bowie, who had his own fictional astronaut character Major Tom. Gordon says the idea morphed from there but there's also a synchronicity of sorts with the journey her partner and Dust Palace cofounder Mike Edward, is on. At the beginning of this year, aged 40, Edward retired from cirque but he's been kept busy this year with acting work.

"Cirque is hard on the body," says Gordon, looking at her own hands blistered from gripping hoops and ropes. "Mike is in the show and he performs a few tricks but not on the scale of what he used to do."

If that's a change for The Dust Palace, so is the form of this show. Previous productions have been wordless, depending on the physicality and athleticism of the performers to tell stories which, says Gordon, have frequently explored sexuality and the limits of the human body.

Ithaca includes dialogue written by Thomas Sainsbury. A multi-award-winning playwright, Sainsbury is perhaps best known for boundary-pushing comedy which takes a wry look at life and the human condition. He's more recently expanded his repertoire, co-founding the comedy dance troupe Dynamotion. Gordon says it was Sainsbury's droll and cheeky sense of humour which made him perfect to write the Ithaca script.

Sainsbury admits he wasn't too sure. While he once participated in a workshop with The Dust Palace, he was puzzled over how to tell a story without words.

"It was such a different way of working that my brain couldn't marry cirque with story-telling but when Eve and Mike came to me and explained the concept, I thought, 'why not? I'm game for anything!' At first I thought cirque was kind of like gymnastics but I've quickly learned how much more intricate it is and what a beautiful artform it can be to tell stories in a different way."

Ticket prices to Ithaca include a glass of bubbles and canapes delivered to your table.

Performance

What:

Ithaca

Where and when:

Q Theatre, November 26-December 11