Tom Tom Crew: Breaking out of the (beat) box

Breaking out of the (beat) box

The guys in Tom Tom Crew twist themselves in knots to please the audience
Photo: Conan Whitehouse

After years touring the world, Australian hip-hop circus Tom Tom Crew lands at Montréal Complètement Cirque

Before forming Tom Tom Crew along with beatboxer Tom Thum and drummer Ben Walsh, Australian acrobats Daniel Catlow, Shane Witt, Dave Carberry and Ben Lewis all studied at the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, a renowned circus training institution for kids located in the twin cities of Albury-Wodonga.

"The acrobats have all grown up together," says director Scott Maidment over the phone from Bogotá, Colombia, where Tom Tom Crew will perform next year. "They all went to circus school together, they trained together, and now they’re touring the world together. So the bond between them is a very close bond."

The creative director of Strut & Fret Production House, Maidment had worked with all the performers in Tom Tom Crew separately before bringing them all together, acting as a matchmaker of sorts. "I decided it would be great to make a show using all their individual skills," he says. "They practically met for the first time on the stage – it was just three hours before the first show that they met, as we made a running order like a band would make a setlist."

That quasi-improvised inaugural performance, which took place at the 2006/07 Woodford Folk Festival, was such a big success that Tom Tom Crew has been touring the world ever since. "[The performers] are not characters; there’s no makeup, no costumes," points out the director. "They’re just themselves on stage, with the raw energy of the acrobats and the raw energy of the percussion. That’s what people have been loving."

Even though it caught on right away, the show has evolved over the years. "It keeps changing all the time, [based on] seeing what the audience likes best and creating new music and new acrobatic routines. That’s what has kept the show fresh. If we’d made a show five years ago and still did exactly the same thing, the performers would be bored and the audience would be bored too."

HIP-HOP CIRCUS?

Tom Tom Crew has been described as "Stomp meets Cirque du Soleil" and, even more often, as a "hip-hop circus." A label Scott Maidment feels ambivalent about. "Well," he laughs, "people always try to categorize the show. Some part of it is circus and some part of it is hip hop, but we also use a lot of different styles of music. Ben Walsh is very interested in Japanese drumming, and Indian rhythms are also used. But there is, of course old-school 80s hip hop in the show as well. So if you have to classify the show, I guess ‘hip-hop circus’ would do!"

The most distinctive thing about Tom Tom Crew might be the way the acrobats and the musicians interact, each side responding to what the other is doing. "It’s almost like a three-way conversation between the acrobatics, the music and then the audience," says Maidment. "I wanted to create a show where it wasn’t just a passive experience. The audience gets really involved, and the more they do, the better show they get."

Because of the audience interaction and the use of hip hop, the show tends to reach a different, younger, more urban audience than traditional circus. "We wanted to make a show that would be enjoyed by people who might go to a nightclub, go see a band live or go see a DJ, but who usually don’t go to the circus or to the theatre," explains Maidment, who singles out beatboxer Tom Thum as one of Tom Tom Crew’s main attractions. "You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Tom Thum! Because not only does he do rhythms, but he also does voices and sound effects, like live foley for the show. A lot of beatboxers around the world have come to the show just to see Tom Thum perform."

AUSTRALIAN INVASION

The world of circus appears to be very healthy in Australia, something Maidment attributes to the fact that folks down under are very physical and play a lot of sports. "Even the theatre that we make is very athletic!"

Asked about Circa, the Australian company whose show Wunderkammer will open the 2011 edition of Montréal Complètement Cirque, Maidment audibly brightens up. "They’re our friends!" he says. "Also, we have friends in other circuses in Montreal: Cirque Éloize, The 7 Fingers [Les 7 doigts de la main], we know them. So it’s really exciting for us to come and see a lot of other artists we’ve met around the world. The people of Montreal should be really proud of what the festival has provided."

Tom Tom Crew

Montréal Complètement Cirque

at Radio-Canada Chapiteau (1400 René-Lévesque E.)

July 11-23

www.montrealcompletementcirque.com

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