Arnhem Land 1988
Nanjing ProjectsJuggling the Data

Going on to Galiwin’ku

The troupe arrived in Galiwin’ku, Elcho Island, on a Tuesday morning. After setting up, they spent the rest of the morning getting to know the locals, including George Rrurrambu Burarrwanga of the Warumpi Band and his family.

The year 1988 wasn’t only the tenth anniversary of the founding of Circus Oz. It was also the year of the Australian bicentenary. In fact, the company had received funding from the Australian Bicentennial Authority to undertake its world tour.

And yet, with its history of support for the cause of Indigenous land rights, it was never likely that the company would embrace the celebratory mood of the official bicentennial marketing and merchandising campaign. In fact, the 1988 show featured a number of clowning routines that questioned the complacency and entitlement of the bicentenary hoopla. One of these, performed at all their Arnhem Land shows, features a character called the Bicentennial Inspector for Gasbagging and Self-Congratulation who tries to censor lines in an anti-bicentenary rap.

A Circus Oz "kangaroo" outside the Joint Defence Space Research Facility at Pine Gap in 1985.
Matthew Hughes as Bicentennial Inspector for Gasbagging and Self-Congratulation, with rap performed by Guy Hooper and Stephen Burton, at Maningrida, 14 July 1988. Theatre and Dance Platform.
The back cover of the Circus Oz 1988 programme with its land rights message. Theatre and Dance Platform.

In its early years, Circus Oz was known for incorporating activist politics into its shows. The company was outspoken about issues such as Indigenous land rights, women’s rights and uranium mining. On the 1985 tour to Alice Springs, the company even staged a protest event outside the Pine Gap satellite surveillance facility, a base that services the US military.

By 1988, however, the company was finding it more difficult to communicate a radical politics. The bicentenary, however, which was an easy target for satire, gave the company a chance to revisit that radical agenda.

It meant that the 1988 show managed to be both physically daring and also politically charged. In years to come, it came to be recognised as a highpoint for the company, the moment when politics and circus skills were evenly balanced.

In Galiwin’ku, the afternoon show turned into a small festival. “It was like we did the performance,” remembers tour manager Linda Mickleborough, who would go on to become the company general manager, “and then they went, OK, now we're going to do stuff. There was dancing and cooking of shellfish and kangaroo tail.”