Monday, 30 June 2014

Chapter 22: Vivienne Westwood and the Fashion Circus

"I don't care how many beauty treatments you have, I don't care which bag you're carrying - 
you have to have a dress"
Dame Vivienne Westwood
Dress featured in Vogue Italia from Spring/Summer 2010 collection

Maybe it's our dire performance in the World Cup that turn my thoughts to something the British do quite well (along with understatement).  Fashion. Specifically Vivienne Westwood's Anglomania label. Vivienne and the Fashion Circus.  Now there's a thought.  I have my eye on a pair of her circus sailor shorts for starters:

I imagined Vivienne Westwood at the 25th Anniversary Gala thrown by the National Centre for Circus Arts recently.  I didn't go, you understand, but heard all about it from a friend who had a fabulous time there, and saw it celebrated on their website:

I had to watch the clip for a second, and then a third time to establish Vivienne Westwood really wasn't there, so vividly had I painted her in.  Well, circus is her space, isn't it?  She is the designer that Comic Relief originally turned to for their Red Nose Day t-shirts.

Maybe it was the runways. Maybe it was the memory of the once flaming red hair (still [to start] working on that chapter on Circus and the Redhead), the flamboyance, maintaining her edge while now not only a grande dame of the fashion industry, but a Dame by royal decree.  After all, isn't circus in some way the punk of the arts? The bad boy gradually being appropriated by the Establishment, taking centre stage at the likes of Sadlers' Wells and the Albert Hall?  

"I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over.  Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from center"

said the voice of Kurt Vonnegut, on Twitter yesterday, haunting the ethernet along with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.  For me that is the crux of Vivienne Westwood's appeal, and that of the circus arts.  Building a path along what may appear to some a precipice, but blazing along the trail with a fleetness of foot, and a fire that forges the way ahead.

Maybe I'm just saying all this to justify the fact that I bought my first ever Vivienne Westwood dress the other day.  We had been invited to the opera at Holland Park to see Puccini's "Fanciulla del West" one evening, and that afternoon, just for fun, I stopped off at a local shop that stocks Westwood's clothes and accessories.  I always head for Westwood's rail first to see what's in, and look at each piece in turn, in wonder. This time the dress that caught my eye, was the Prophecy dress (see link), the print aptly named "mirage".  
I couldn't believe my eyes.  That is the power of a well-cut piece, it drapes, it flatters, it graces and you radiate. 

Before I could cheque myself, out came the credit card and along came the dress. I'm my own fairy godmother.  I just need to wave my wand now at the fridge that is still leaking. 

The evening was stellar.   We were invited to have drinks with the cast afterwards, only it was past bewitching hour, and Prince Charming and I found the pumpkins were calling.  It was only when we got home and I had a moment to try on the dress properly, that it sunk in the dress looked even better, the right way round (pictured), as the shop assistant had advised. I laughed. What a fool.  Back to clown school.  Now, where did I put that nose...?

This little piggy went to market ...
As featured in last week's  Metro newspaper, 23rd June 2014

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Chapter 21: Circus and the Science of Happy

Thursday Morning, 7.25am.  I wafted downstairs in a demure, coral-coloured sundress. My 8 year-old son looked horrified. "Mu-um, you can't go out in that!!!" ???!!!  "It's Sports Day, parents have to wear house colours.  Mine is yellow."  OK, we have to leave to catch the bus at 7.30am.  I have yet to make the picnic. Time is short.  I grab a Brazil top that I had prudently bought in Primark a couple of years ago, because I knew it would have its moment.  That time is now. 

There is a psychology to colour, isn't there?  This was our first sports day at a new school and I was interested to note the school doesn't have a red team.  Too aggressive, would it give an edge?  Each house is named after a royal family, so obviously purple, the colour of emperors, doesn't make an appearance.  But replacing red with black? That I don't quite get.  Yet.  Maybe it was to give the parents a discreet way of supporting their house - a coal-coloured bag or a black belt and bob's your uncle.  In fact, the other parents were so discreet that you would be hard-pressed to tell what team they were supporting.  I felt like a complete muppet.  "Don't be embarrassed, Mum." said my son, giving my hand a squeeze.  Luckily yellow is a happy colour.   Their team house song was even Pharrell Williams' "Happy", which has been on repeat play in our house for weeks now. So, deep breath, shoulders back, and *smile*.

And speaking of feeling over-exposed, writing this blog over the past month I have never been so happy, but it is a process of writing, stripping away, then putting it out there.   At points doubting, which drives me crazy. So I was interested to read Alain de Boton's article on Why you need to go and see a therapist, that flashed up on twitter at the same time as the image below.  Maybe not so mad after all.

That said, signing up as LucyLovesCircus on "Facepage and Twaddle", I've certainly been hearing voices - a tsunami of status updates and tweets flooding in from all directions. Information overload.   Circus arts are my therapy, and there's a science to it all.  It gets the adrenaline pumping and the serotonin circulating.  It's a real connection with my subject matter that is a counterpoint to the virtual connection in an age of social media.

So I was interested to read a Guardian article that a friend posted on Facebook yesterday on How trapeze can lift women out of depression.   Yet again, circus space helping birds with broken wings soar - the injury may not necessarily be physical. 

And it's a funny thing, but reading that article it occurred to me there are certain parallels between circus and mental health issues.  Some just don't get it.  Others do.  And not everyone is comfortable talking about it, but when you start speaking out about your own experiences, others the world over chime in with theirs, often surprisingly. Our host at a Christie's summer party, for example, who hangs out with an aerialist from the Roundhouse's CircusFest, the mum at the school bus-stop whose grandmother was a trapeze artist in Paris, the friend in the City who spent his teen years in France skateboarding and swapping tricks with street performers,  and turns out to be a wicked juggler.   People's faces light up, with relief, with excitement.  And that's the buzz.  

Go on, clap along if you feel like that's what you want to do...

And then breathe.

Credits:  The opening picture comes from The Happy Show , an exhibition at the I.C.A. in 2013 designed by Stephan Sagmeister, recreating the space in his mind "to increase his happiness via mediation, cognitive therapy, and mood-altering pharmaceuticals."

Friday, 27 June 2014

Chapter 20: Circus Kathmandu

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake, from Songs of Innocence and Experience

Henri Rousseau's Tiger in a Tropical Storm
at The National Gallery

Tigers.  Magnificent, terrible, ferocious.  Shere Khan.  Sheer Pride.  Growing up, one of my sisters had a poster of a regal tiger in her bedroom with the caption: 

"It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am."  

Circus empowers.  Circus is a great space for tigers.  I am reminded of this yesterday when my daughter brings home a reading book from school.  It's about a little girl called Lucy, a redhead (and redheads in circus get their own chapter, to follow) who discovers a magical fairground horse that will take her wherever she wishes to go.

Nepal is across the border from India, and home to the first ever Nepali contemporary circus, Circus Kathmandu.  European circus professionals have been working with children and young adults rescued from savage exploitation in old-style circuses, to create a company that can now explore their own story through the language of circus, on their own terms.   You can get the low-down from the article Circus Kathmandu and the Fight Against Human Trafficking that appears in The Circus Diaries blog.    

I was interested, and not surprised, to read that one of the key players in helping that voice find expression is Ali Williams, creative director of NoFit State, who took a sabbatical to go out to Nepal and work with the troupe. It brings me back to this idea of circus providing a space, a safety net, for any Bird with a Broken Wing (see Chapter 9: NoFit State to Entertain) to recover their strength.  As one of their artists explains on the Circus Kathmandu Home Page:

"I feel proud now.  I can stand up on my own legs and feed myself.  I've started earning and I can look after my family."

Circus Kathmandu arrives at Glastonbury this weekend.   Are you going?  Are you there yet?!  If so, you can see their show "Swagatam", meaning welcome, at the Big Top tent today and tomorrow afternoon.   And lucky you.  I'm still waiting for my fairground ride to spirit me away.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Chapter 19: The Snake Charmers

Have you ever been pinned down by a question?  Nailed even?  On the school run earlier I was staked through the heart by my daughter, simply:   "What are you scared of, Mum?" I squirmed.  I writhed inside. My knee-jerk response, you see, would be:   "I'm terrified by the thought of losing you."  Bit heavy for a six year old, at that hour of the morning.  So instead, I replied  "Snakes."  She burst out laughing.  "Seriously?! But that's silly.  I've had a snake round my neck and it's nothing to be scared of.  It's a bit slimy, and sure, it moves, but it's cool, I loved it." Actually, I had to correct her, you've worn a snake twice round your neck,  once at a reptile party when you were two and a half, and once on a nursery trip to the zoo a year later. 

Snakes.  Charming.  A memory of a fabulous, award-winning shot slips into my mind, taken by the photographer Stormy Sloane in boudoir mode. It's of sultry circus performer Katrina Lilwall with her albino python nestled between her breasts.   The art of circus boudoir  - including bare-faced chic labels such as @strippedbeautiful - merits its own post, to follow.

Photographer:  Stormy Sloane
 Model:   Katrina Lilwell and Sunny the Python

I was once informed by a rather charismatic guy, Peter, in Botswana that he could cure me of my fear of snakes.  I nearly burst out laughing. Nervously. Peter owned a luxury camp in the heart of the Okovango Delta.   I had heard about Peter long before we arrived.  Oh, he's mad, said the pilot of the tiny Cessna.  Long-haired, bare-foot hippy, talks to everyone.  A real character. Even the Rough Guide referred to his hitchhikers' camp down the road as "Oddballs - named after the owner".   We arrived at the camp via mokoro, a canoe-styled punt.  One thing I couldn't get over was how clear the swamp water was.  Shouldn't it be murky and stagnant?   We pushed on through the reeds, how tempting to lazily trail your hands in the cool, inviting waters, but probably wiser not to.  I remember turning the corner and seeing the honeymooners' tree-house.  That's for us, right? I joked. Turns out that my boyfriend and I were the only ones staying in the camp that night, and it sure was.

I'm not sure, even now, whether I was relieved or disappointed to learn it was the dry season and not a snake in sight.  I am curious like that. There was only the old skin of a rattle-snake to welcome us to our tree-top dwelling, alongside the pair of wild cats gambolling on the stairs.  And the eagle perched on top.  Or was it a vulture?

We stayed in a total of three camps on safari, and what I couldn't stand about the first two was the regimented life.  Rising at crack of dawn to see the animals was tough but enchanting, it was the pointless afternoons when you had to be off again that really irked.  Guests weren't allowed to glimpse the workings behind the scenes at camp, and isn't that the most interesting part?  So arriving at Peter's camp was a huge relief.  If we didn't want to go on a walking safari the next day, then we were free to stay in bed. Actually, we did make a stab at venturing out, but it was the morning after the night before, polishing off an entire bottle of port with our host, and the first thing we happened across was a rotting elephant.  The stench was so grim downwind it made us turn again, Whittington, not now Livingstone. We learnt about dung and tracking, we'd spend evenings cupping our ears, listening to the lion's mournful soliloquy, the elephants hefty approach - there, where no fences or barriers around the camp - the swish of hippos galumphing in the swamp.  Mud, mud, glorious mud. 

The stories came thick and fast with Peter, tales of home-life in Maun, the half a dozen snakes he kept there, the festivals of the Eclipse, hilarious adventures with guests who think they own the place, and some real nuggets of wisdom:  a girl should always have her nails buffed & polished, declared the guy who never would wear his own shoes, let alone polish them.   And we talked books.  We could have spent hours swapping titles, and ideas.  When I left, the visitors' book had one page of thanks to everyone, and the other page a shed-load of Latin American titles I thought Peter would enjoy.  The short stories of Horacio Quirroga, tales of struggles in the jungle and with nature reminiscent of Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene,  then there was Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo", Gabriel García Márquez, epic. And I clicked as well with Karen, the camp manager - a South African athlete (aren't they all?), full of energy.  One day, I made the mistake of signing up for a forty minute power walk with her, over to the landing strip to catch the mail plane.  I half-expected a lion to jump out at any point, but you are invincible when you are young, and somehow I survived. 

We travelled straight back to Cape Town after our stay with them.   I couldn't sleep that night in the hotel room.  I felt trapped, I missed the stars, the sounds of the animals, the scent of the wild.  The real world, my world, felt stale, fake and claustrophobic.  It reminded me of returning home from my first trip to Cuba, where there had been nothing on the store shelves or shop floor.  When back in the UK I then walked into a Boots pharmacy and saw so many varieties of shampoo it made me feel sick.  Won't one do?  How quickly we acclimatise to our own reality.   Looking at my bathroom cabinet now, well, it's ridiculous, but it's all essential, you know...

A year or so later Peter, in London for a Kensington Olympia travel fair, came over to the Docklands for dinner at ours.  We lived enclosed in a small flat that looked over the Thames, and had invited another couple of friends too.  Peter had chopped off all his hair.  Sampson, I wondered? He was as edgy as a caged animal to begin with, and who can blame him?  Even with floor to ceiling windows and double doors opening out to the balcony overlooking the Thames, we were were essentially in a confined space. And what do you know of Africa, he tartly asked my beautiful girlfriend, who it turned out lived and worked in Guinea Bissau for two years with the V.S.O.  Credentials established, we could all relax.  My cooking wasn't really on a par with five-star camps though.   It makes me laugh now to think I served up a rather heavy spag. bol. for supper. Should have opted instead for the tiger prawn curry - my only other dish.  Washed down with a beer, a Cobra, obviously.  Yup, the food was definitely an anti-climax, and the tequila slammers  afterwards finished us off ...

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Chapter 18: Kate Tempest, The Girl's on Fire, with I am Fya.

"Our fear pickles us, living in jars 'cos it's safer."

Sometimes you come slap bang against a voice so real it leaves you speechless.  So raw that your own words feel tinny, fake, artificial, laboured, the product of a relentless consumer.    Kate Tempest is an Author.  Roots in Authenticity.  Speaks with Authority.  The voice of a prophet of our time. Declamatory.  The voice quivers with strength and conviction. Her poetry is epic.  Check out Brand New Ancients, Part One, for starters.

She keeps words on their toes, one of a generation of poets who belong to the age-old tradition of bards duelling verses, and who now fight for survival in the quick-fire rounds of slams, exchanges of verbal bartering and battering in open mic evenings.  

"Them things you don't show I can see, them things you don't say speak to me."

That's what Kate does.  The album "Everybody Down" peels back the layers, gets under the skin to the broken hearts, wasted, lives fragmented, interconnected.  She has a vital way of nailing characters like Becky "eyes full of morning,  spent without sleeping", Harry, after Becky "heart opening up as like it was blinking", Marshall Law "wanking on about his artwork", and David, well, "even David's enthusiasm is boring".  I feel for David.

On stage at the Hootananny she radiated happy.  The biggest grin, sharing jokes with her crew.   I am Fya is touring with her,  and her video "I'm a girl" strikes out against the living doll, our surgery-obsessed age that rams the perfect woman down our throats until we regurgitate it.

And it makes me think of that aerial gig "Expectation", part of The Roundhouse's CircusFest 2014.   What body are we as women constructing?  Do I train in circus to have the perfect body or a strong one?  I tell myself it's the latter.

Back to last night, there was a sense of the home-girl, home-coming.   Somehow I ended up at the front with the French girls I'd met in the loo queue.  If the accent wasn't a dead giveaway, the flags on their cheeks were for sure. France had just thrashed Switzerland.  They were high.  The audience chorussed along and Kate got us sing back at her, something she said she'd avoided 'til now as naf.  She was having fun. She's great live.  With her band.  Voting is open here at Songkick: Best Live Act 2014.  It's in the can, right?!

"Once I set myself a task, there ain't no going back"

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Chapter 17: The Warm Up Act and Girls on Fire.

Let's set the scene.  It's a balmy Friday night and I'm at home.  Husband takes kids off for the evening, I have the place to myself.  Exit family stage left, enter best friend, stage right.  And she's on fire.  She is nervous, skittish, elated, confident, radiant, frustrated.  There is passion simmering in the work place and she's on the cusp.  We haven't seen each other for a while and the stories come tumbling out.  Maybe because I notice the neighbours' cat threading her way past the kitchen window I'm thinking Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Streetcar Named Desire.  Southern belles ringing. 

So I make us both a cuppa.  Tea.  Yes, really.  At the kitchen table, a nice, safe space. And then we move out into the garden and open a bottle of bubbly left over last weekend's family celebrations.  We take our time over a glass. There is no hurry to make our way over to Brixton.  Kate Tempest doesn't headline at the Hootananny until 11pm, at the earliest.    We talk life, the universe and everything.  And circus.   Obviously. This is a friend who came on the Circus Experience afternoon with me, and who sent me the "Circus Boudoir" photo of the Selfridges display that I use as my background on this blog.  We would love to be with other friends watching the psychadelic aerial show "Mauré", by the Spanish-Argentine group Voala,  opening The Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, but fabulous as JK Rowling is, she has yet to release Hermione's Time Turners to the general public, and we can't be in two places at once. 

By the time we do get to Brixton we are starving,  and stop off for some takeaway onion bhajis and samosas.  The queue for the club moves quickly so I smuggle the brown paper bag through a hole in the wall to the beer garden.  We had not expected to be carded on the gate, but luckily a debit card and wrinkles (mine) serves as a passport.    

Once in, would you believe that the only table free is home to a seriously fit Brazilian guy, let's call him Ed, who invites us to join him.  He must be the only Brazilian around not to follow the World Cup, and claims not to watch television at all, but loves the arts.  Portuguese writer Jose Saramago (see NoFit State in Chapter 9 ) and the Brazilian singer Seu Jorge, from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is about my lusophone limit, and that does just fine. Soon afterwards his friend, Marcelo joins us, who speaks very little English.  Much to their surprise, we quickly establish that it's ok because we are all Spanish-speakers.  What are the odds, right?  Ed lived in Spain, Marcelo in Argentina, ché!, so we switch tongues.  As it were. They have come to the Hootananny as it is their local, and so I'm soon selling the poetry of Kate Tempest to them establishing her in the great oral tradition that dates back to medieval romanceros, balladeers and troubadours, the décimas of Violeta Parra, and beyond.

Some of her work will be lost in translation, sure, but the music's great too.  

More join the table, Brickston lads, some hod carriers by day, musicians by night. We talk languages and music - the more you learn the easier to pick up, mix up, swap around.  There is a girl who shares the same name as the president of Brazil.   What Lula?  Muppet, I'm a bit behind the times. Dilma speaks Portuguese too, and French, and Spanish.  Soon we are all swapping identities and languages, histories and herstories.  And names.  Ed is highly amused to find out my name is Lucy.  As in Lucía, right? Lucía Lapiedra.  I'm sorry, who?  Lucy Stoned? You must have seen her on late night Spanish tv, she's famous.  Well, infamous really.  But I thought you didn't watch tv?! Let me guess, she's some sort of cabaret act.  Oh great.  She's a porn star.  Genius. 

Time spins by, it's getting on for quarter to twelve, and no sign of Kate Tempest, but we move in side anyway.   On stage struts a beautiful burlesque act, doing a saucy striptease.  Look, we tease, there goes Lucía Lapiedra making a spectacle of herself again, spectacular.  Then on comes Kate Tempest. I am beyond excited.  I feel a hand on my shoulder.  A whisper in my ear.  "Luce, I really like this guy." I take my cue and slip away, deep into the heart of the crowd, without so much as a backwards glance.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Chapter 16: Bird with a Broken Wing

The poetics of circus is a funny one.   The poetry of physical movement speaks volumes, but recently there seem to be more and more shows reciting, as well as embodying, the written word, with varying degrees of success.  One example is the Australian production "She Would Walk the Sky" which I saw at the Roundhouse as part of CircusFest 2014 back in April.

The narrative, such as it was, laid an emphasis on the idea of a circus family being a delicate balancing act.   The bird with a broken wing in this case is pining after her dearly departed sailor boy.   She leaves the company to search for him, with her ardent admirer, the Strong Man, in hot pursuit.  The faded grandeur of the circus carnival set mirrors the disintegration of the company as it loses one of its wings.  I loved the surreal clown who brought the story together, but whether he was too far out on a limb from the rest of the performers, having "wandered in from another show", and whether the story-telling simply distracts from the real talent of the acrobats. is an interesting point made in Lyn Gardner's review in The Guardian.  

What lingered for me, after the show, was the theme of the bird with a broken wing.  The strength, skill and extraordinary focus of the performers counter-poised with the potential danger, illicited frequent gasps from the audience, and had me leaning over to my brother at one point whispering "I'm not sure how much more I take of this ... "  The idea that however strong we all have our Achilles' heel, stayed with me; we are all damaged goods in one way or another.  The bird that is soaring may then find she is knocked off her perch by desire, the strong man may find himself unmanned by unrequited love, the family may realise it is missing a limb when a member goes walkabout.   

Life is so bloody fragile, I think.  A lesson that was brought home to me last Friday when I was training out on the Common and put my shoulder out of its socket.  In an excruciating moment of funny-bone pain, writhing around to knock it back in place, and with my training partner thinking I was having an epileptic fit, I remember thinking, "this just can't happen to me right now, I need to go and pick my son up from tennis in a minute, then my daughter from a playdate etc." Eventually, after a moment where time seemed to stand still and extend infinitely outwards in all directions, the bone slotted back into its groove.  I'm hyper-mobile and this has happened before, you see, though never quite as severely.  The pain went in an instant, but ache of vulnerability lingered.  

So going back on Tuesday evening to Circus School (ie. The National Centre for Circus Arts, formerly known as Circus Space) was not a little daunting.  I had missed two lessons and with Circus School's half-term to boot, my absence added up to a month.  Ditto my partner-in-crime Anne, doing the acrobalance course.   It was great to see the familyar faces in my group again, at the same time missing the couple that weren't there. We don't rely on each other physically, as the acrobalancers building human pyramids do, say, but there is an instant trust and support there.  My first lesson on static trapeze, then, was their third (that much was obvious!) but it was thanks to their encouragement that I could get up at all.  And also thanks to our teacher, Lorraine, who it turned out was subbing for the usual teacher.  That was a stroke of luck, as it turned out that Lorraine had taught static trapeze to my friend Vicky over a decade ago, and knew her very well.  And it was Vicky, her energy and her stories, that had inspired me to sign up, in turn.  

Lorraine had the perfect balance of encouraging us to go beyond our comfort levels without forcing the issue, and supporting us when we (ok, I!) froze.   We practiced moves again and again, at times with our eyes shut to reinforce the sensations.  It was fabulous.  At the end, Lorraine invited us to practice a move where you drop from sitting into a half-angel.  Half-angel.  Short a wing.  Love that.

After class, I found Anne had pulled a ligament up the back of her leg in her tumbling class.   She was in huge pain, not that that will ever stop her. Anne had been doing a star turn, complimented on her round offs,  and observed that pride does come before a fall.  I was hobbling too - simply because a surfeit of lactic acid, pumping into my muscles when fear gripped hold, meant my biceps and calf muscles had seized up as a result. What a pair we made.  Still, proud of our efforts, even when we have to wing it.  Birds a little broken, but still soaring ...

... and still tweeting.   Being on twitter this past month has retuned me into the delights of discoveries on radio as well.  I heard a song the other day that struck a chord.   "Let Her Go" by Passenger. Looking into Passenger's bio, I was fascinated to learn that he has made it big-time from busking, so, like circus, he has his roots in street performance.   No beauty without pain.  No flight without falling.  She Would Walk the Sky if you Let Her Go.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Chapter 15: The Rehearsal

Did you know yesterday was World Juggling Day?  It was also Father's Day's, World Gin Day, the day after our wedding anniversary, and we we were hosting a huge family lunch party.  Somewhere along the way I dropped a couple of balls, and social media was one of the first to go.

Sometimes it feels that life is a series of little failures, of dropping balls.  And it's funny, because when Rufus Norris was in conversation with Toby Jones the other evening at the Battersea Arts Centre (see Chapter 13), he referred to failure being just another word for rehearsal.  Hearing that was one of those light-bulb moments. It has become my mantra over the past week as I've been upping the ante on my harp practice, ready to play for my parents yesterday.  My father is 92, my mother in her 80s, and the occasions when they will come to London are few and far between, if ever.   They were not coming to hear me play the harp per se, but, quite frankly, if you can't slip in a serenade to your Dad on Father's Day, when can you?

I would love to say I played perfectly - that I astonished and delighted the audience with my dexterity and musicality.  The truth is I failed.  By my standards. There simply hadn't been the time to put the hours in, and while my harp teacher says that there is nothing like a glass of bubbly to lubricate your playing, there had been a fair few more than that over the long, long lunch before I remembered the "concert" I had promised. But the thing is life will never offer up perfect opportunities - you just have to work with what you are given.  I recovered from the odd slipped note, the kids running riot and pushed on.  Dad was delighted.  Mum thought I did very well, dear.  Job done. 

And the same goes for Circus School.  After a month away, I'm going back tomorrow for my first class on static trapeze, while my class-mates have already had two sessions.  I feel in NoFit State.  Again. But I guess you just have to take your chance and roll with it.  Accepting failure is one of the most excruciating lessons out there.  But actually,  I am more than happy rebranding it as a rehearsal.  And that is exactly what this blog is.  Sometimes you just have to keep harping on.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Chapter 14: Barnum and The Art of Marital Humbug

"You wonder how we made it down the aisle... "

Today is the 14th June, 2014.  England are playing New Zealand in Rugby Union again.  The last time we beat New Zealand was on this day eleven years ago.  The day my husband and I got married.  What a show we put on.  And life has been pretty colourful ever since.  

We often see red, for instance.  We are both passionate about our interests, but he is the scientist, I am the creative.  He is tall, dark and steady, I am small, freckled and feisty.  He has zero interest in circus. I don't do quantum physics. We have an ability to get under each other skins like nobody's business. There are times when you do indeed wonder how we made it down the aisle. And that's where Mr and Mrs Barnum come in. Barnum the grafter, and his wife the moral compass. Chalk and cheese, but deeply in love, although in this case the roles are reversed...

One of the challenges for me, writing this blog, is to keep him reading.  He is my litmus test as to whether the writing convinces.  I am quite evangelical in my passion for circus, you could say my favourite position is missionary, and I have loved the musical Barnum for many years.  My eldest sister saw the show with Michael Crawford in the 80s, who went on to be the West End's original Phantom of the Opera.   The BBC screened Barnum one day, and I remember being astounded by the stunts Crawford pulled off.  I listened to my sister's tape of Barnum so much it stretched and broke.

Then last year, as my youngest approached her first birthday, and I felt stretched and broken, I remembered the tape and its upbeat circus songs, so ordered a copy on Amazon for my sister and myself. A couple of months later we were driving down to visit my parents in Hampshire and I noticed a sign up advertising Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre.  What are the odds?  It was the first staging by Cameron Mackintosh since those Crawford days, so of course we signed up.

The first time we went to see Barnum we took my son, then aged 7, and it happened to be press night. A load of poe-faced journalists sitting with their notebooks out. Uh-oh, I thought, they're just not going to get it.  The production bombed.  And even with the best will in the world, I could see why.  The leads were charismatic, the circus turns were terrific, all the singing and dancing was strong, but the show was unwieldy. Barnum's voice had given up the ghost, and he didn't make it across the tightrope.  His shout out in frustration "Oh, come on, COME ON!  Give me a break!" reminded me of John McEnroe. And actually, although he dropped the ball, so to speak, I thought he recovered it brilliantly.  You could well believe the fall was intentional, illustrating that Barnum is a risk-taker, plans do go awry, yet he always bounces back. But even I was bored at points.  Not one to give up, we went back at the end of the summer, this time to a matinee taking my daughter (aged 5) as well. This time the show had been streamlined, numbers cut, sequences edited, it was a different show.   And Barnum made it across the tightrope in fine singing voice to thunderous applause.


The kids loved it, we watch the trailer over and over, and have the music on repeat play in the car. It is exciting to hear today, then, that the musical is coming back on tour in the Autumn.  And my husband can babysit.

So, here you go.  Happy Anniversary darling, and here's to many more years of marital humbug. 
I like your style ...

Friday, 13 June 2014

Chapter 13: On Moscow and the State of Circus

In a week when Shadow Culture Secretary of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, has caused a storm with her call for State-funded art in the UK to be more inclusive, I want to touch on the State of Education and the Performing Arts. There's no Harman that, right?!

And now for something completely different.  My fridge magnet.

I found it yesterday in a shop.   Its message made me think about the creation of our alter egos in social media, whether we use our real name or not.  We are nothing more (or so much more?) than a creation of our words and pictures, driven by our interests, memories and daydreams. A month ago LucyLovesCircus didn't exist.  Now she has her own Twitter account and Facebook page and is quite shameless.  Quite being the operative word.  And the world is opening up.

My thoughts have been turning to Russian circus recently.  It started in half-term when I was on a bus with the children on our way to the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square to see  "Primetime" (link), a series of plays written by 8-11 year olds.  The bus changed final destination and we were left stranded by the police station at Battersea Bridge.   Trying to find a way to sell walking the rest of the way to the kids, I noticed a poster for the Moscow State Circus.  An attraction and a distraction. We laughed and took it as a sign we were on the right track, and, as we walked, we talked about our next new adventure.

Each show that the Moscow State Circus puts on has a story to tell, and the current show revolves around the space that is "Gorky Park", the historic amusement park in Moscow.   This reminds me of song by the German rock band Scorpions in the 80s, celebrating Glasnost and the end of the Cold War in The Wind of Change: "I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change...".   I was a teenager staying with a pen-friend in Southern Germany at the time it came out, and that song was everywhere, the anthem of the moment, the zeitgeist.  

The kids and I missed the Moscow State Circus in Fulham, but we are determined to see the show at some point over the summer holidays.   I believe that circus has a lot to teach children beyond entertainment.  It fills them with awe as they gaze on astonishing feats, and I think childhood should be filled with wonder, wherever possible.  And it is a shared experience.  That to me is key, and a point I picked up on listening to Rufus Norris (BBC profile),  newly appointed artistic director of the National Theatre when he came to the Battersea Arts Centre on Tuesday.  He described the importance of theatre being a shared communal experience, and one that moves its audience.   He underlined that he sees his role going forward to be one of service, and this this was said with genuine commitment. Theatre, and by extension the performing arts, is the new religion, I thought, and isn't Rufus Norris divine?!

The Soviets didn't miss a (circus) trick when they nationalised the Moscow State Circus back in the 1920s and used the shows as a vehicle for Communist propaganda.  With performers as highly skilled, rigorously trained and valued as any classical ballet dancer, the shows were more accessible quite simply because the tickets were cheaper, enabling the State to reach its message out to a far greater proletarian audience.

I was fascinated to read in Wikipedia's article on the Moscow State Circus about one act in particular, a flying trapeze troupe named "The Cranes" after a song (see link) of the same name, remembering fallen soldiers of World War II who, instead of being buried in the ground, soar up to the sky like great birds. 

" The show, set to classical music, focused on the story being told, rather than on the incredible display of skill. One of the performers threw a “quad” (4 backwards rotations before being caught by the catcher), an impressive and incredibly rare trick, which would have been the focus of the act in any other kind of show; nevertheless, the performer said that the most important part of the act was the way the it was an aesthetic experience. He said it was not the individual skills, “but the simultaneity of our aerial gymnastics and the psychological effectiveness of our acting, all of it working together to move an audience...other circuses have first-rate performers, but we do something special — each act creates a small vignette. These are playlets that give spectators not only the flavor of our life, but also reveal the soul of Soviet man.” 

It reminded me of the way that Fidel Castro harnessed the power of travelling theatre companies to reach out to illiterate campesinos in remote mountainous parts of Cuba when he came to power in 1959.  

Back to the moment in the UK, Harriet Harman warned of the dire consequences of a generation coming through with "no meaningful exposure" to opera and classical music, and there has been much in the press and trending on twitter about cultural elitism.  But when Harman mentions culture on offer in Covent Garden, she means the Royal Opera House, while I think of the pedagogical goldmine that are the street performers right outside.  

Chatting to my yoga teacher yesterday evening, I heard about The Playful Monk,  the venerable Amarantho, who works with children in extremely deprived areas. He was giving a talk at the centre the night before.  "What if the children don't speak?"  Asked one parent there.  "You listen harder," he replied, "they will be saying something."  Silence speaks volumes.  I think yoga and circus skills inhabit the same space in many ways.  A space where discipline, laughter and an awareness of living in the moment go hand in hand.   And as if to illustrate this point, I read a feature recently in the Financial Times on Andy Puddicombe, the ex-Bhuddist monk and founder of the highly successful Headspace app, which guides you through a series of short daily meditations.   After he left his order, Andy Puddicombe spent time working in a circus in Russia, and found the yoga to be a key transferable skill.  Well, there you go, enlightening stuff.  Buddhism and an alternative religion.   If the performing arts are now the opium of the masses, then circus is my drug of choice. I wonder what Marx would have made of it all?!

 (see clip from 10 minutes in)

Circus is a State of Mind.  

Monday, 9 June 2014

Chapter 12: Send in the Clowns

"If word gets out I'm missing, 500 girls would kill themselves, and I wouldn't want them on my conscience…
Not when then ought to be ON MY FACE!"

Rik  Mayall as Lord  Flashheart in  Blackadder Goes Forth

9th June, 2014. This evening the barrage of punk references and Young Ones quotes and references to Lord Flashheart has slightly passed me by. I am just killing time until my harp lesson with a quick login to Facebook. I register, barely, that he has died. How sad, I think, he was funny, life is cruel. I move on. Then my harp teacher arrives, who had known Rik Mayall. Now, I have only been learning harp for a year, but there is a strong bond forged between teacher and pupil and I feel my stomach dropping out, a visceral reaction to her loss, to that of his family, of an outrageously funny, generous, grounded free spirit. Gutting.

Growing up I just caught the tail end of The Young Ones,  so for me Rik Mayall was all about Famous Five in  The Comic Strip Presents… and Lord Flashheart in Blackadder. For others it might be Bottom or The New Statesman, or Drop Dead Fred. For all, I believe, Rik Mayall's comedy was anarchic, irreverent, limitless, expressive and perfectly timed. He was the ultimate slapstick clown of our times.

"No, I live on the limit Vyvyan.  The Limit.  Because I'm a Rider at the Gates of Dawn and I take no prisoners."
as Rick in The Young Ones

I hear that Mayall died unexpectedly, and have been thinking of a friend's husband who died suddenly, whose daughter's birthday is today. So poignant, words fail. Then at bed-time this evening, my six-year-old daughter turns to me out-of-the blue, distraught: "Mummy, you are magic.  What will I do when you are gone? I am so scared to think I will lose you one day, so scared." I reassure. I hold. Close. She is at that age. My son went through it. So did I. So did my husband. So will our toddler in a few years time. It's hard-wired into our DNA to ask, what next? Still, I wonder what has brought this on right now? Is it something in the air? Today has been so very humid after all, so heavy. So close. Waiting for weather to break. I think of that later, watching a stunning piece by a student from the National Centre for Circus Arts entitled "Raindance":

And it's a funny thing, but I'm working on a harp piece to play to my own parents this weekend. The title of the piece, by Paraguayan composer Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, is "Esperando" which translates as "Waiting", and when I play this evening, I feel both an anticipated and real sense of loss flooding out.

In something akin to a zeitgeist, the website "Brainpickings" has been very much on my radar raising these issues in the past 24 hours. I went to bed last night reading the latest post on Tolstoy's Confession where, on  reaching 50, Tolstoy in crisis questions our place in the world, and sinks into an existential funk.  If there is no point to life, does it bear waiting til the end? Shouldn't we just call it quits? And then in today's "Brainspickings" offering, "On the Messiness of Mourning and Learning to Live with the Loss", Megan O'Rourke  similarly touches on the tension produced by this sense of waiting for the end:

The dread of death is so primal, it overtakes me on a molecular level. In the lowest moments, it produces nihilism. If I am going to die, why not get it over with? Why live in this agony of anticipation?

The answer? Who knows? But if life is some absurd joke, let's celebrate the clowns who help us laugh at it. Let's live for those hilarious moments that help lift the burden and bring sheer release.

Outside the rain is thundering down. With the odd Flash.

Thank you Rik Mayall, and good night.

"Flash by name, Flash by nature."

Friday, 6 June 2014

Chapter 11: On the Call of a Siren, featuring Paolo Nutini

Sirens.  In Greek mythology, those lethally beautiful female creatures of the deep whose enchanting voices drove sailors mad with desire, and utterly wrecked them.  More recently those sirens of the silver screen were utterly feminine, think Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth, Liz Taylor, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe.  

They knew how to work a pout.  

I was thinking of them last night when out with girlfriends at one of those pampering evenings at Space NK.   When it came to my turn, the make-up artist took me out of my comfort zone with a fire engine red lipstick called "Frenetic Vermillion".  Quite appropriate in a week where I'm onto my fifth parking ticket, and seeing fifty shades of red.  I had to buy it for the name alone.   And also it suited me.  Mr Gray was thrilled when I got home ...

But I digress.  Back to real sirens, and fake mermaids.

Mermaids were a common feature in circus sideshows.  In Cameron Mackintosh's staging  of Barnum last summer at Chichester Festival Theatre, there was the obligatory splash of a tail peeping out from a trailer on set. What self-respecting circus wouldn't have a mermaid, or a merman, as part of the sideshow?

In real life, Barnum created the elaborate hoax of "The Feejee Mermaid" (as pictured, right), captured off the coast of exotic islands.  Billed as half-mammal, half-fish,  in reality  it looked decidedly male and comprised the mummified head of a monkey sewn onto a fish, with human hair superimposed.  A complete fraud, but Barnum spun the story and made some money.     It is a fine example of the noble art of humbug - a word coined by Barnum himself, with a double-sided coin no doubt. 

Humbug, an X-files episode.  A fishy tail in which a series of sideshow murders is pinned on the male Fiji Mermaid.

My last trip to the Roundhouse was for  Circus Fest 2014, maybe that's why I'm trying to put a circus spin on the return trip.

"If every fool wore a crown, I'd be a king and not a clown."
Let Me Down Easy, from the album Caustic Love

Well, that lyric is rather an obvious hook for any circus lover.  But Paolo Nutini's appeal is rather broader than that.  In fact, if I could sum up a typical Nutini audience, it would be "eclectic".  It surprised me.  I had expected a homogenous sea of teenage girls, I suppose.   Part of the appeal lies, let's be honest,  in his looks. Nutini is young, good-looking and enigmatic. When he took his leather jacket off half-way through to reveal the crisp white t-shirt, the collective sigh could have raised the roof on steam alone.  But that's not where it ends. 

As a performer Nutini's style reminds me of a young Bob Dylan,  lanky, leggy, deftly tripping across the stage.  Or maybe it's just because he sings with such relish about that Funky Cigarette.

He's got the whole world in his hands

As a singer, Paolo - and here I'd like to think we are on first name terms -  strikes a chord. He sings of love, of desiring, of fighting demons, throwing out a whole host of reference points with which to connect.  And he goes beyond relationships. Thinking here of "Iron Skies" which uses as its touchstone Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the first Chaplin film I ever saw.

And that's the bottom line, really, isn't it?  A connection that chimes with our own personal experience, that makes us feel the world is smaller than it is, that reassures us we are not alone.  That's what we, the audience, the energy vampires like to sink our teeth into.  We feed of those moments of shared experience with a joy, a relief, that makes you wanna scream Hallelujah!

And therein lies his power.  It reminds of another male siren, The Pied Piper, and a great school musical production I saw a couple of weeks ago.   We are like rats, I think after the concert, as the audience floods out and down into the Underground as though returning to the sewer.  I bury my face in the bouquet of roses that my girl-friend, who came to the concert as well, had given me earlier in the evening.  They smell great at least.  After a few stops, a group in very high-spirits get on and start strumming a guitar.  These aren't buskers, these are folk on a mission to get the world singing.  It's funny that only that morning I was reading in the papers about the pensioner who orchestrated an impromptu sing-a-long on the commuter train from Maidstone into London.  

A girl in the group chivvies people along.  She turns to me "You look as though you could sing, you'll join in, right?"  How could I resist?  Confessing to having spent the whole evening singing along to Paolo Nutini at the Roundhouse causes them to fall about laughing. Pointing at the guitarist she says "He's just come from supporting him there."  He does look familiar, but maybe he's simply an old soul.  It doesn't matter.   Whatever the illusion, his talent is real. After a few chords of Oasis, he moves onto Loving You filling in the one gap (to my mind) in the Nutini set.  I blush furiously. I hate the sound of my own voice, but that's not the point.  It's about connecting, it's about getting the party started.  I miss my stop.  In a moment of sliding doors, I wonder what would happen if I just followed the band, that promises such fun.  Instead I slide through the door/ With my morals on my sleeve, slipping the troubadour a single rose from the bouquet on the way, along with the knowledge that I'd literally gone the extra mile. It was time to get back to my real family.

Lucy Loves Circus, Loves London Stories, Loves The Siren Call of Circus Spirits.

Come follow the band ...