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.  

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