Way down under, on the bottom of the world, it’s warming up. New Zealand’s winter has come and gone and I’m itching for those festival vibes. I heard of a springtime festival called Circulation, a grassroots event of workshops, performance and music. Already captivated by the Kiwi spirit, I knew I had check it out.
The festival venue is a scout camp outside of Dunedin, a small coastal city on the south island. Cell phone reception is left behind as I drive through rolling farmland and past hundreds of sheep. Fields give way to forest and scattered rain-showers patter the trees. The “gate” is a couple of campervans and tables beside the road. A smiling volunteer gives me a wristband and a high-five. I’m in. Preparing for the wild, the weird and the wonderful, I enter Circulation.
The opening ceremony displays the intimacy of the event. It’s Thursday afternoon and so far about 300 people have arrived. We stand together in a big circle and hold hands. Attendee, artist and organizer are indistinguishable. Dreadlocks-per-capita are at an all-time high (classic New Zealand). I’m feeling a bit self-conscious in my street clothes. Little kids interrupt and chase each other across the circle. Everybody laughs.
After the welcome circle I head to dinner. Meals are served thrice daily throughout the entire festival for a shockingly affordable $40 (total). The menu is fully vegetarian and prepared by professional chefs from Dunedin. Crew, artists and attendee all eat together in a large dining hall. It’s healthy, delicious and convenient. Best of all it provides a great opportunity to meet and mingle with the good people.
With nothing “official” scheduled for Thursday evening, a DJ hits the decks at the main stage as people wander back from dinner. But instead of gathering around the stage and dancing, most people are out in the fields playing.
There are hula hoops, poi, staves and a dozen things I cannot name. Elaborate toys and extraordinary talent are everywhere. Almost everybody is twirling something. It’s impossible to pick one thing to watch. As twilight deepens the lights come out. LEDs glow, blink and fly around leaving tracers behind them. Fluorescent patterns trail in the air to the sound of thumping bass. I remind myself I’m sober and not on a heavy trip. And then I smell the kerosene…
Fire! The hoops, the poi and the staves are lit. The rushing sound of risk is in the air. There is a flaming sword, spiked fans, spurred staves and flying balls ablaze. The orange glow lights up half-naked bodies spinning flares in dance. It’s primal. It’s dangerous. It’s fascinating. Hippy-Gandalf stands beside me. “Just wait!” he chuckles, “it’s only Thursday.”
After a delicious breakfast Friday morning I look over the workshop schedule for the weekend. Each day several dozen sessions take place around the grounds. A silks class is starting on the aerial rigs. Advanced staff spinning is being held in the grassy fields. I decide to attend the beginner Acro-Yoga class at main stage. Lying on my back I’m learning how to lift a stranger into the air on my feet. After a challenging hour of concentration and abundant laughter, I leave with new friends.
In the afternoon there are classes on poi spinning, electronic music production, hula hooping, improv and trapeze. My partner heads to hula-hoop while I check out a class on clowning. We finish the day together in a massage workshop learning the secret to the perfect back rub. The workshop leaders are engaging, knowledgeable and fun. Whether you’re trying something for the first time or looking to improve, the small classes ensure plenty of one-on-one instruction.
That evening the professional pyros put on a fire show. A series of solo and small group performances choreographed to music wowed the crowd. One man lit a six meter whip on fire, cracking it with a kerosene explosion. He whipped his partner’s outstretched sword, setting it alight, and they danced a fiery battle. I had the chance to try out some fire toys after the performance, an amazing opportunity. No one told me not to play with fire.
The festival continued with delicious meals, fascinating workshops and exciting performances. On Saturday I tried the Cirwheel – a giant metal ring you can stand inside of and spin about. Needless to say it’s tough as nails. At midday I took a djembe workshop led by a charismatic african drummer. On Sunday afternoon I joined Laughter Yoga. In a big group we stood in a circle and laughed. We ran about laughing. We lay on our backs laughing. We clapped our hands, sung songs and laughed and laughed and laughed. Fake it till you make it: pretend to laugh and eventually you will crack up for real. I left breathless and joyful.
Saturday evening saw more attendees arrive at the festival. Another stage was set up with a big sound system and all-night DJs. The main stage had a roster of live acts. Both, however, were quite disappointing. The DJs played hard psy-trance with almost no variation. The live acts had little appeal to anyone besides the handful of friends they had in the crowd (for good reason). All in all, the “party night” was a let down. That being said, we were happy to crash early ahead of a final day of workshops.
Over the course of the weekend the community of Circulation really stood out. From the workshops and activities to the group meals and ceremonies, there were so many opportunities to interact. The focus of the festival was sharing and the spirit of generosity could be found in every corner. I had run away and joined the circus, it felt like Circulation was family.
On Sunday evening, after a traditional Maori Hangi, we gathered in the dining hall for a very weird closing ceremony. The Renegade was an opportunity for anyone to perform anything for the crowd. Weather it was something new you learned over the weekend, an unperfected joke or simply unapologetic nudity, anything goes. Performances ranged from acrobatics, slam poetry and guitar solos to stand up routines, cross dressing lap dances and straight up weirdness. Everyone who went on stage was reworded with cutting a dreadlock off an organizers head, guzzling a goon bag and unreserved applause. I demonstrated fitting my fist in my mouth, snipped a dread and took some wine.
Before we knew it Circulation was over.