Aussie circus clown Mark Sheppard's performance background is more in acting and contemporary dance than clowning, but when he was introduced to Circus Oz in 2012, the rest was history.
Sheppard, 41, performed in his first show last year in Melbourne, on Australia's southern coast, almost 2,000 miles from his hometown of Mareeba, in the country's northeast corner.
Sheppard is one of two indigenous Australian performers traveling with the world-renowned circus show, which comes to Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville for two shows this weekend.
Indigenous Australians, or Aboriginals, inhabited the continent for 50,000 years; in recent years, they have made up less than 3 percent of the Australian population, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Over the decades, the indigenous people, whose various tribes spoke more than 200 languages among them, were relocated throughout the continent and surrounding islands, and given limited civil liberties.
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Today, performers like Sheppard have formed all-indigenous theater and performance companies to preserve their ancestry and culture through the arts.
"It has been a kind of struggle to get to this point, and now there is recognition of the indigenous people to break away that social fabric of stereotypes of the different language groups in Australia," Sheppard said by phone from California, where he was performing for schoolchildren.
Sheppard's ancestry is in the Muluridgi and Mbarbarum tribes, and while he has worked with numerous indigenous theater companies, he says he enjoys Circus Oz and its position on social justice.
The nonprofit organization has helped more than 20 community organizations and is one of the first circuses to fully reinvent its show without using animals, artistic director Mike Finch said. He describes the show as having a counterculture feel but with all the classic circus tricks.
Sheppard has a part in the show called "Welcome to Country," which he also choreographed. The dance is based on the traditions of indigenous Australia as an acknowledgement of land and ancestors, he said.
"That is important as an indigenous person to show respect and gratitude," he said.
It is also important to have an indigenous presence in the show for kids to see the diversity in art performance, Sheppard said.
"Every day I wake up and I'm able to do what I love to do, which is performing and to be entertainment," he said. "To have an understanding of who I am and where I'm from, I have a lot of gratitude."
Alongside Sheppard, 14 performers are onstage during Circus Oz. Several musicians double as performers. An aerialist drummer, a clown guitarist jamming out to contemporary rock and a pianist suspended from the roof add to the organized mayhem of Circus Oz.
"There is something about the Australian sense of humor," Finch said. "It's extremely laid-back; a joyful sense of mimicry, playfulness and a really strong sense of family."
The show's story and humor are perfect for young and old, Sheppard said.
He and Finch enjoy performing for American audiences.
"There is an incredible exuberance." Finch said. "You guys are not afraid to make a lot of noise, so it's going to be a lot of fun."