Dreaming of a home-grown circus | Chris Dingli and Sean Buhagiar

Could Malta have its own bonafide contemporary circus? Given that we have very formally trained performers, it’s a bit of a long shot, but local theatre veterans Chris Dingli and Sean Buhagiar are determined to tackle that challenge head on.

Chris Dingli and Sean Buhagiar are adamant to create a contemporary circus for Malta – starting with this summer’s ‘Darirari’, a Malta Arts Festival commission.
Chris Dingli and Sean Buhagiar are adamant to create a contemporary circus for Malta – starting with this summer’s ‘Darirari’, a Malta Arts Festival commission.

So I'm waiting for the bus when suddenly a car pulls up in front of me.

"You won't believe this," the heavily bearded young driver who pokes his head out of the window says. "I just called you, this minute." It's Sean Buhagiar, actor and artistic director for Notte Bianca as of this year. Plucking out his iPhone to prove that he did in fact dial my number just minutes before we met, he reveals the real reason why he made the call.

He points to his companion in the passenger seat: the London-based local actor Christopher Dingli.

"Chris is here for just the day, and it really is a full day. I don't know, do you want to chat about that thing we've been talking about, maybe?"

I accept the invitation because 'that thing' - and I know the 'passing car' context may lend it some unsavoury tones - does in fact sound quite promising. Something of a longstanding pet project of Dingli's, 'Cirku Malta' will present its first show, entitled 'Darirari' during this year's edition of the Malta Arts Festival.

Perhaps the clue is in the title but yes - it will essentially be a circus based in Malta and propelled by Maltese mores, themes and textures. The two are, however, aware that for this idea to become reality and take root as a regular feature within the Maltese cultural landscape will take some time.

Finally settling into a B'Kara restaurant - it will also serve as Sean and Chris's spot of refuelling after a busy day of meeting associated with the project - they divulge their dreams for the project in what can only be described as dogged optimism.

But first, Cirku Malta's genesis. Sean makes an 'over to Chris' gesture when I ask about the early stages of the idea.

"Back in 2008 I was still on the island and working on the film Agora. That's when I came into contact with a great number of Maltese performers of every kind who were doing an amazing job on this film but who sadly, couldn't do it full time," Chris says.

READ MORE: Malta Arts Festival returns in July

"That's when I realised that maybe it's time for us to experience a cultural shift. The tendency is to think that in order to secure a job in the arts, you had to go abroad - like I in fact did. But it would be great if we could shift that perception and make people see that in fact, there's more than enough talent here, we just need to harness it and cultivate it properly..."

An active contemporary circus within the local scenario could, in theory, help to keep these talents alive and - if we are to adopt Chris and Sean's optimism - help them to find a professional home. So what, according to the duo, is the main obstacle?

"The fact is that we don't have all that many people who are trained professionally in certain fields - like, say, trapeze artists," Sean says. His solution may sound like the very pits of post-colonial insecurity, but it's hard to deny that the logic is sound.

"We've brought a few international professionals on board. Not only will they be performing in the show, they will also train the Maltese performers in areas that may not be provided for on the local scale."

The impression I get from the talk is that the two have a far more 'flexible' view of the performer - both as a natural talent and a professional.

Perhaps Chris's long stint in London has taught him that artists need to develop a wide array of skills in order to survive in a highly competitive environment, one which rarely affords the kind of financial stability we may perhaps associate with other, more 'conventional' disciplines.

In fact, another aspect to making use of international performers is that they may help their Maltese counterparts - be they actors, dancers or whatever - to harness a fresh set of skills.

This is all the more relevant to Cirku Malta because of its very nature as a contemporary circus. Having made a conscious decision early on not to include animals in the circus, the key model for Chris and Sean remains Cirque du Soleil, with its emphasis on bravura acrobatics and sight-and-sound dazzle.

"You may find actors who would have plenty of experience on stage drama, but who may want to try trapeze, for example," Chris says. This adventurousness is part and parcel of what drove Chris to the initiative in the first place. "I've been performing for years now... and I'm shocked at how late in the day the idea of a circus occurred to me. Because there are so many opportunities there.

"This I what we hope to achieve - that we can prod performers out of their comfort zone, and encourage them to have less fear about just getting out there and trying out something new."

Though the presence of international performers-cum-instructors appears to be set even for future editions of the festival, Sean insists that the show - hopefully, the first of many - will have a distinctly 'Maltese' mood.

"By this we don't mean in the traditional a Wenzu u Rozi sort of way," Sean says. "There's something very 'tangible' about the Maltese aesthetic - you don't exactly have to go searching for it. Chris works with mood boards a lot, and we've been picking and choosing Maltese textures, Maltese characters..."

"That's the thing," Chris chips in, "the idea is to be as genuine as possible. When we say we want to make it 'Maltese', our hope is that we'll be able to create characters that people will recognise. That will make you stop and go: 'Yes, I know someone just like that!'"

That is not to say that Malta's natural heritage won't be exploited for the sake of the circus: the duo are keen to incorporate as much of Malta's sights and sounds as possible for Daridari, and Sean betrays a dream to incorporate the sea into future editions... "We'll see, we'll see."

Darirari will be playing at the open-air theatre of the Ta' Qali National Park over 9, 10 and 11 July, as part of the Malta Arts Festival

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This is an excellent intitiative, well done! I'm really looking forward to this show.

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