Thursday, 21 August 2014

Chapter 33: Clowning around and getting all steamed up

Dita (V)on Seas
Postcard: Bamforth & Co.

There's something I've got to get off my chest. My language has been getting a bit frisqué of late. Maybe it's because I'm looking forward to going to see the Boylexe boys perform next week. Or maybe it's because there is something about spending time on the salty English coast that raises my cockles, and peppers my speech. The fact is I'm hearing double entendre wherever I go. From the waiter at the beach cafe asking if he can do anything more for me, Madam, or ordering chips with extra mussels on the side, to spending hours getting it up (windsurfing) with the buff, young instructor describing in detail the art of handling his mast (boom, boom!).   

From sea breeze to sea tease...
Postcard: Bamforth & Co.

So maybe it was time to let off some steam and head inland for a family day out with friends to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Singleton, which was hosting its annual Steam Festival at the weekend.  As quintessentially English as a saucy seaside postcard, and from the same vintage too. I was transported back to the idyll of childhood memory by the mechanical pipe organs, horse drawn fire engines galloping round the field, and the odd gypsy caravan. As we feasted on traditional bratwurst hotdogs (oops, moving swiftly on) and some home-brew elderflower cider,  I thought, "This is the stuff of children's fiction, like Toad of Toad Hall, toot toot!,  or Fantastic Mr Fox's "cider inside 'er inside". This is the best of England."

Retirement Plan - who needs a Fortune Teller?!

An England that I have read about, if not felt born into. Despite growing up in the Home Counties, as the child of a Scottish mother and a Dublin-born father, I would accept the label of "British" at a push, but preferred "Citizen of the World". Or Celt. At school I even tried to change my surname to Mackenzie. Maybe as a first name it would have worked better...

Because, you see, England gets a bad press and as a teenager, then a young adult, welcomed in to live with families in France, Germany, Spain and Cuba, I would find myself both repeatedly apologising for, and distancing myself from, a whole range of English offences, ranging from poor cuisine, lack of knowledge of any other language, general ignorance and bad dental hygiene to Imperialism and Anglo-Saxon World Domination.

As an adult, I am married to a Flemish Belgian who grew up in Switzerland, and our children are bilingual. We prefer the term "Londoners". Even in London we've been greeted with "My husband tells me it's quite natural for English people nowadays to have your sort of surname..." No, no, I was quick to reassure her, we are quite foreign. Then, the other day, a friend sent me a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in response to my post on bread&circuses' Wot? No Fish!! (See Chapter 31) and, watching it, I realised that in my own mind, I have been in danger of perpetuating a single story about my own home country.

Outings like this one to the Steam Fair prompt me to consider aspects of Englishness I appreciate: humour (vintage Benny Hill?!), modesty (working on it), stiff upper lip (see Benny Hill), tolerance, rousing hymns (Jerusalem), Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron (again, see Jerusalem), Morris Dancers, volunteers preserving those strawberry fields forever, and, of course, the Village Idiot.  

There is a folk element to this culture, of course, that links back to its pagan Wicker Man roots.  The Edward Woodwood original, rather than the horror that is Nicholas Caged.  So I was interested to learn yesterday that there is a British Folk Art Exhibition on at the Tate Britain.   I spent my entire academic career looking further afield, maybe it's time now to look closer to home.  And if this sort of thing tickles your fancy, join me, it's on until the end of August. 

Photo:  Tate

That's all, folk!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Chapter 32: The reality of BBC1's Tumble

It's Sunday morning, an ungodly hour, and I've just joined a group of beginners for my first ever windsurfing lesson.  The wind whips up blinding sand and we overhear the club owner wonder how safe conditions are to take us out that morning.  Secretly I'm willing them to call the whole thing off. But they don't, and we're committed. Once in, we all take to it like a duck... to snowboarding.  Our instructor's radio bleeps.  "How's it going?" crackles the radio.  "Wobbly" was the deflated response. I've never heard weather described as wobbly.

But we had one thing in our favour. Determination. Three out of four of us were Mums (the fourth was the teenage son), carving out this precious space for ourselves. Our instructor later confessed that as soon as she saw us in the water, she decided to call it quits after 20 minutes, but we lasted the full two hours, and we're incredibly grateful to her for bearing with us.  We got up on the board, and we managed a few turns into the bargain.  And even more tumbles.

And as these things do, probably because I'm in the zone right now learning aerial at Circus Space (National Centre for Circus Arts), talk turned to Tumble, the night before, the reality show in Strictly Dancing format on primetime BBC1 where celebrities try their hands at gymnastics and circus skills.   It turned out that my windsurfing buddy is a former gymnast, and as we are both London Mums who love a bit of Strictly, we swapped notes.  She felt it didn't have enough of the sport of pure gymnastics, and I was disappointed not to see more of the art of circus.  Would either of us have tuned in if we didn't have some background connection? Probably not.  

Will we stay tuned in?  Well, I will because it's billed as family entertainment and I'm certainly enjoying watching it with my kids.  Going by their reactions ("A.w.e.s.o.m.e.!!! ... Can you do that Mum?!" Er, no, Strictly speaking!), and those of their friends, the programme encourages the next generation to roll up and sign up. Especially when they include stunningly impressive and aspirational acts like Beth Tweddle's with her stars of the future, in a routine that was a beautiful balancing act of gymnastics with a touch of Cirque. My son's friend, another Beth, aged 8, said:

"I think it's amazing how people can do acrobatics like that when I really want to do them myself".

And it would be great if there were performances from groups like the London Youth Circus in the line-up:

The BBC have cottoned onto the fact is that circus is a zeitgeist and it's catching. After their summer workshop at Airborne Circus, the kids can now spot a mermaid on a hoop, turn swings into trapezes, and quickly made new friends swapping juggling tricks at family-friendly Camp Bestival.  And only this afternoon, my husband, who allegedly doesn't "do" circus, has been caught red-handed at the bottom of the garden practicing with their diabolo... in reality, I want to see more of that.

And funnily enough, there is an abandoned fortress for sale on the Thames.  Fort Boyard on silks? Now there's an idea ...

Source: The Independent

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Chapter 31: bread&circuses: Wot? No Fish!!

I found this fridge magnet at the weekend at Fishbourne Roman Palace, circa (the) A27 and bought it in honour of Danny Braverman, of theatre company bread&circuses.  His one-man show Wot?  No Fish!! was on at the Battersea Arts Centre recently and blew me away.

Let me start by saying I'm not a theatre critic.  State the bleeding obvious Luce, I hear you say. The thing is I don't  attempt to review shows not for want of trying, but because every time I try my hand my writing bombs.  I know, because my husband starts to yawn. Instead I enjoy writing virtual thank you letters to performers for shows where I've emerged, renewed. And on occasion I buy them a fridge magnet (Danny, if you send me your address, it's yours!).

When I first heard about the show, it was the name bread&circuses that attracted.  So it's a figure of speech,  describing the opium of the masses way back when in Roman times.  But as I've been recently rather evangelical (kinder folk refer to it as "enthusiastic") about circus as a current zeitgeist, and the Battersea Arts Centre is my local theatre, I thought it was meant to be.

Danny Braverman inherited, through his mother, shoeboxes of doodles on the back of old paypackets that his great-uncle Ab (Abraham Solomons) a shoemaker, would pen each week to his beloved wife Celie. Over decades.  What emerges is the portrait of a Jewish family in the East End, their joys, heartaches and aspirations (pictured right).

See the trailer below. 

At the start of the performance, we are greeted with fishballs.  Real, home-made ones. Are there any other kind?!  Each member of the audience, takes one, dips it in the sauce should they wish and passes the box it on.  This very act seems to bring us into communion with the story before Danny has even begun.   Danny begins with a dream of his ancestors, a hilarious anecdote in the telling, which brings him to the realisation that life is neither a straight line nor a matter of going round in circles.  Rather, his(family)story is a helix, where certain spiral patterns map themselves onto events to come.  It's like viewing current events with a sense of deja-vu on the periphery.

And there are connecting instances between the past and the future. Danny ends up, by sheer joss, living in the house where his Great-Aunt Celie had grown up.  I later find out from my mother,  who like Danny's mother is the repository of family history, that a cousin had once ended up in a small terraced house in Liverpool, that had been home to her great-grandmother a century before.   Danny would not be surprised at such coincidences, or the fact that people invariably want to share their own stories with him afterwards.  Because that's what his show does, it connects.  It encourages each member of the audience to chime in with their own personal experience or recollection.   And thats the beauty of it.

And it has been ever thus.  The storyteller in society is the guardian of cultural memory.  Not all storytellers are writers, but given it is an art rooted in oral tradition, with stories passed from generation to generation, it strikes me that all performance is storytelling.  And Danny Braverman is a master storyteller.

When we bumped into Danny on the staircase afterwards, another member of the audience was asking him if he still writes political theatre.  Before I could help myself, I chimed in "But the personal is political." Jeez, I haven't said that since university. Or, to put it another way, Danny Braverman is a micro-historian.  He is one who "focusses [his] attention on people who can illuminate the socio-historical context of the period from ground level", a definition by Julia Barclay-Morton in her article  (click here) on writing about the "lived history" of her own grandmothers. 

There is an extract of a poem called Ancestral Poverty that I read recently which brings this home.  It is by a Cuban poet, Georgina Herrera, currently sponsored by a growing publishing house Cubanabooks in the US, which gives a voice to Cuban women writers by publishing them in translation. As a Spanish speaker who has spent time on the Island I obviously support this.  But also because it ties into my world view that the greater the diversity of voices we listen to, the more we engage in life around us, and that maybe the myth of the destruction of the tower of Babel is in essence a challenge to reconstruct our humanity. So I read:

We were so poor in my house.
So much so 
there was never enough for portraits;
family faces and events
were preserved through conversations.

It is this universal need to bear witness to life and hand down to future generations that drives storytelling, and justifies the odd blog into the bargain. Ultimately, for me, bread&circuses is food for the soul,  and manna from heaven.  Get your basket at the ready.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Chapter 30: Matisse and the Art of Circus

Here's where I'm going with this blog: circus for me is a state of mind. It denotes flexibility, an ability to explore beyond boundaries and an openness to new ideas. And that's what I find interesting about the current exhibition of Henri Matisse, "The Cut-Outs", at the Tate Modern, where Matisse engages with circus, dance and all that jazz, innovative disciplines that play with form.

from the book "Henri's Scissors" by Jeanette Winter
I find Matisse's life story illustrates that point as much as his work itself. It was his mother's gift of a box of paints while he was recovering from an appendicitis that drew Matisse away from a career in law and set him on a creative path. Many years later, again crippled by sickness, Matisse turned to a pair of scissors and developed the cut-outs. He was also inspired one day to take a  long pole and tie a piece of chalk to it to design the faces of his grandchildren on the ceiling, who “looked down on him and saw his dreams”. That creative, bendy thinking when presented with an obstacle reminds me of the time my mother, balancing on a stepladder for hours, turned the stains on the kitchen ceiling (from a leaking basin upstairs) into a fresco of a koala sitting on a branch, munching on some eucalyptus leaves. So when she asks me “Lucy, this circus thing, where does it all come from?” I think you just have to laugh. Maybe it’s genetic. 

I like to think the kids will inherit that creative gene too. Only they aren't allowed to go to art galleries to foster it apparently, according to Turner Prize-winner Jake Chapman see link here. To get a rise out of the chattering classes he has declared, stop press!!!, that taking kids to look at pictures is a total waste of time. Well, of course it is.  That's the whole point, honey. If you were stuck at home with three kids all day, all summer long, you'd find yourself becoming pretty creative with ways to waste a bit of time too. We saw Matisse this time round, before that Lichtenstein, and Hockney the time before that. Each time round the kids have chosen a print or some colouring that they enjoy, and off they go. Of course the finer points are lost, but it's time out together that gives us a direction. We've not yet gone to an exhibition by YBAs such as the Chapman brothers though - I wonder what the kids would make of it? Would the Brothers Grimm enchant? Or would they think it was a load of old Pollock?!

Dragging the kids to the Tate Modern again...

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Chapter 29: Gandini Juggling at Camp Bestival

And, now, come to this spot
Where the spotlight is hot
And you'll see in the spotlight
A Juggling Jott
Who can juggle some stuff
You might think he could not...

Dr Seuss, "If I ran the Circus"

... Like what? 
Clubs and balls, 
hoops, a few
ideas, expectations 
Thing One and Thing Two. 

Do you give a jott for juggling? If not, then what?  Circus is the new religion you know, the tent is temple, and Gandini Juggling is a slice of heaven. Say festival, think fiesta, think party, right?  Originally though, a Spanish fiesta was a day off to celebrate a patron saint, a festival was a religious holiday.  

As a child, I read Paolo de Tomie's story of "The Clown of God" about a juggler in medieval Italy who goes from festival to festival, astonishing, delighting, awe-inspiring.  Gradually he ages, his clothes are in tatters, his balls have lost their gleam, he has lost his edge.  Our juggler is shown kindness by a couple of Franciscan monks, and chances upon a church, where he finds a statue of the Christ child looking sad. That won't do.  One last time he gets out his rainbow of balls and juggles higher and higher, creating beauty in the moment. And then, his work done, he dies.  The child is smiling.  Laughter is sacred.

So I am delighted that churches have become performance spaces for circus companies - Jacksons Lane in Highgate, hello! And then I see a picture on Twitter recently of Sean Gandini and partner juggling their way through a sermon.  I assume at first, being self-styled atheist jugglers, they are at the  London Sunday Assembly, which serves "the best bits of church but with no religion".  But no, on closer inspection it appears to be a bona fide Sunday Service.  And I've since learned that there are a number of church services around that use circus acts to convey that sense of wonder and mystery.  

So I love that the first time I see Gandini Juggling live is at Camp Bestival, the family-friendly festival at Lulworth Castle, Dorset, with my three minibeasts in tow, and they are LAUGHING their heads off.

The children are a bit skeptical at first about going to see a juggling act. What's so great about that? They are used to me juggling three balls, mildly amusing, but within their reach - and the whole point of circus is that it is fantastical, it should make your jaw drop and wonder "how on earth?"

But then the six Gandini jugglers walk onto Castle Stage and they are spellbound.  Within seconds. There is no fuss to the costumes, they are like slim-fitting overalls, utilitarian, and yet pristine white, an utterly impractical colour to wear to a festival. I like that edge, and the cut-away sections that give a touch of bare-faced chic to the ensemble.  This was a short introduction to the full show.  It was like one of Willy Wonker's gobstoppers - the children savoured the first course, actually more an amuse-bouche with those smiles, and were hungry for more.  

The main banquet was held in The Greatest Tent on Earth.  What a great name to roll up to.  There were balls, hoops, over-sized globes that toyed with perspective, and glowing orbs that they presented to the children in wonder, stepping down onto the small platform in front of the stage.  My kids wondered if the orbs were made of fireflies, and whether the fireflies have enough oxygen inside the balls to breathe? Enough to last out the act at least, I reassured them ...

All the sequences were choreographed to music remixed by Rob da Bank. It was an eclectic score that encompassed upbeat and bouncy, dreamy and classical, and, well, mixed it all up.  Harmoniously. There was an undercurrent of steady crescendo that culminated in a light display at the end of swirling LED-lit clubs that changed colour to the beat of the music.  It was stunningly beautiful.  We puzzled later over how that was done. Buttons on the clubs used by the jugglers?  No, too much to co-ordinate. Pre-programmed?  Remote-controlled?  We had fun trying to work it out, and not sure I really want to know the answer. 

When I asked the kids what they favourite part was, they said "The End".  They were not being facetious. They meant the very end, when a child was picked from the audience and asked to stand very still while clubs shaved past his head.  They loved seeing one of their own involved, and so composed, what a star.  It brought the jaw-dropping fantastical into their reality.  Bravo!

The few images and clips I have really don't do Gandini Juggling justice.  This is just a taster.  Still, I hope it makes you lick your lips ... and then go see them live.  

And smile.