Having hosted countless dirty vaudeville nights and devious dance shows, you’d think that New York circus company Spiegelworld's century-old Spiegeltent – of which there are just a handful left in the world – would have seen it all.
Then there was Empire. Devised in 2011 under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the show bills itself as a unique mixture of high-top antics, burlesque and acrobatics with lashings of sex, slapstick and silliness.
The show was only intended for a short Melbourne and Sydney run in early 2013, yet one year and seven Australian cities later, an overwhelmingly positive response has brought the Empire back to Crown's rooftop.
High above the hum of the city, it takes a moment to adjust to the otherworldly energy surrounding the Spiegeltent. In the garden out front, a sinewy man perches on scaffolding high above the carnival-style bar. Heavy wooden doors creak open and the first thing you notice is a round platform in the centre of the tent. Much smaller than any traditional circus stage, the stage is just over nine feet in diameter, and feels even more confined once 700 audience members take their places around it in a tight circle.
Lights go down and a huge Perspex bubble descends. The stars-and-stripes pin-up princess known as Miss A moves inside the structure with a contortionist’s ease. The stakes get higher when the bubble – made from two submarine windows – gapes open at the bottom, but Miss A’s dreamy expression has a strangely hypnotic effect on the audience.
But there’s no time to get sentimental. Tearing onto the stage are Oscar and Fanny, our husband-and-wife hosts. Loud and lascivious, the pair introduces themselves – all of themselves – when a quick-change costume routine backfires hilariously. “Did you like his penis?” Fanny asks, leaning in close to a flabbergasted audience member. Later, the duo will perform their famous ‘Banana Dinner Party’ skit, which is surely the cabaret epitome of lowest denominator gross-out humour.
Mixing world-class aerobics with calculated silliness isn’t new to the circus format, but Empire jams elegant against crude particularly smoothly. The Russian roller-skating duo Polka Dot Woman and Blue Tarpoleon perform a nail-bitingly fast spinning routine to the tune of Muse’s anthemic 'Butterflies and Hurricanes'. The pair sizzles with sexual energy. Equally as daring but far tenderer are the acrobatics of Ukrainians Carrot Man and Lime Green lady.
With such a small space to work with, the performers distil their routines down so that they’re conceptually simple, yet extremely daring. When the so-called Half Naked Asian Dude Wearing Pigtails careens across the tiny stage in a giant hamster wheel, there’s less than an inch between the structure’s metal bars and disaster.
When the shirtless, shoeless and serene 3D Graffiti Guy floats onto the stage, there’s no indication that he is about to perform Empire’s superb slow-burning finale. Picking up a feather and placing it on a branch, Turkey-born Canadian performer Memet Bilgin Rigolo begins a 15-minute feat of physics and concentration that builds tension so completely that by the end, breathing feels precarious. The piece comes to its stunning climax not in resounding applause, but in complete silence.
Minute by minute, the only relief that the audience gets from palpable danger is the very real possibility of one of Fanny’s hideous lap dances. It may sound uncomfortable, but Empire radiates a no-fucks-given New York attitude that’s hard to argue with. As a tribute to the crazy loners, daring artists and passionate lovers who beat life into the city’s electric heart, Empire triumphs magnificently.