"Running away to join the circus" was once an act of dissidence -- a step toward a life of sawdust and carnies, riding the rails and living on the wrong side of the tracks in a shadowy subculture. In recent years, however, the circus has become a valid career path, the tinsel replaced by 24-carat gold. Companies like Cirque de Soleil have brought legitimacy to the freak show with sold-out, big-budget Vegas productions; a Google search for training institutions generates thousands of hits. What was once a down-and-dirty, back-alley affair is now a squeaky-clean enterprise fit for the average suburbanite.
This sanitation also scrubs away some of the danger. Part of the attraction of a circus was that it could be an insubordinate milieu where "high-flying" was a metaphoric as well as literal notion. As the Big Top has been Disneyfied, its mutinous nature has been lost.
But there are always exceptions. Circus Oz, appearing Oct. 11-14 as part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Australia Festival, retains the chaotic rebellion of rawk-and-roll. Founded in 1977 as a unification of Soapbox Circus and the New Circus, two troupes popular in their own rights, Circus Oz brought the DIY procedures of punk and the tenets of ensemble theater to its art, flavoring it with elements of sideshow, vaudeville and burlesque. Performers made their own costumes, welded their own tent-frames, and approached their material with irreverence and love. They have since built a unique circus atmosphere, one of the most welcoming in existence.
The old-time standards remain, with acrobatics, juggling and contorting; "new circus" is present through hula hoops and strong women. Whips, cabaret singing, a live band and BMX biking take us further into the underground. But it's not the onstage trickery that distinguish this company; it's the performers' commitment to a philosophy that fuses them as artists and entrances us as audiences. There are no stars, and no one is punching a clock in a casino. The chill of glitter gives way to the warmth of humans doing what they live to do.
Though it's co-presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council and Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, Circus Oz and its show Laughing at Gravity won't be for everyone. This is not a flawless, shiny show, and it's not even remotely trying to be. This circus is composed of artists, not performers, who are human, not robotic, so they might occasionally require a few attempts to execute a feat perfectly.
For audience members seeking spectacle, the lack of pretense and absence of glitzy trappings might detract from the experience. But for those more impressed with beauty, truth and what happens when the two are entwined, it will be everything a circus should.
Circus Oz -- Laughing at Gravity Thu., Oct. 11-Sun., Oct. 14. Byham Theater, 121 Sixth St., Downtown. $19-40. 412-456-6666 or www.AustraliaFestival.org