Saturday, 29 November 2014

Chapter 51: La Soirée

Pushing along a buggy a few years ago and struggling for breath, metaphorically-speaking, I stopped in front of a bus stop in Balham.  There, resplendent, was a poster advertising the circus coming to town. La Soirée.  The name conjured up exotic allure, the sepia tones in the picture, maybe a memory overlay, promised sultry fun. Just out of my reach, still I took a picture of it and sent it to a friend. This is right up your street, I said. Saw it last year at the Roundhouse, came the reply. Go! You'd love it! And so I did ... last night.  

La Soirée is now in the big top Spiegeltent on South Bank. Spiegel means play, right? So a play-space then, home to a mash-up of circus and cabaret acts. And come Friday night, boy, were we ready for that. And the South Bank was ready for us. The Christmas market was open and everyone was in festive mode. Mulled wine and wienerschnitzel, pints of beer and hog roast, jam-packed wooden walk-ways and fairy-lights leading like a latter-day yellow brick road all the way to the glittering Spiegeltent. Magical.

There was a bar inside the tent where we topped up with mulled wine, and then were guided to our seats by an über-charming prohibition-styled usher who also carried my booze for me, having astutely assessed the risk potential presented by my heels, the scalding drinks and the grooves in the floor. There were rows of free-seating, as ever, with a few tables dotted around, and booths at the back. The evening itself veered between moments that were laugh out loud funny, touching and simply astonishing. I was delighted to find that my man, who can be so blasé, was completely enthralled from the first to the last. I can't tell you why exactly - they don't hand out the programme until after the show for good reason - but I am itching to tell you something without giving the game away. So I've answered this conundrum with a puzzle. Below are the initials of the performers we saw. You can make sense of them if you know the show, and if you don't, hopefully you'll get the flavour, and a taste for more.

Go! You'd love it! And if you ask nicely, I'll come again with you ...

tEG: Bowlered these maidens over, gentlemen. Ripped reality. Wow.

JL:  Buckets of pizzazz and cheek, gallons of skill.

MMmmm: You deserve your own confetti, love. 

JB: Flexing more than just our laughter muscles. Geek love. 

HM: Sex on a stick, so smooth, left us feeling good. 

AT: Uncorked mellifluousness and forked tongue slayde us. A novel bedtime story...

SS&ADC: Soaring, smouldering, sexy, spell-binding and utterly compelling.  

D&F: Hypnotising routine. Science can explain how they do it, but still lost in wonder.

StBB: Fame precedes tail, one sexy bunny. 

UM: De putamadre, de verdad, mujer con cojones, agua sin gas y dos cervezas por favor.

PPC: Cohen's Clown. I will always look up to you. Hallelujah!

La Soirée is showing until 11th January, 2015.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Chapter 50: The Great Spavaldos - Virtually Circus

"So last night I was wearing a pair of goggles, clogs and a cape and pretending I was one half of a moustachioed trapeze act The Great Spavaldos and this morning I was learning all about aerial drag acts and a star turn involving a whip and a flaming newspaper over coffee with Boylexe at the BFI cafe. Welcome to my world. Virtually."

Hi, my name is Lucy, and I'm a digital immigrant. Unlike the next generation that has grown up tech-savvy, them, the digital natives, I'm treading on foreign territory, feeling my way through social media, as well as feeling my (digital) age. This was brought home to me at Jacksons Lane with The Great Spavaldos, a show from Il Pixel Rosso, a young theatre company, who use audiovisual technology to take you through a 20 minute immersive circus experience. 20 minutes. My husband was delighted. He'd last been to Jacksons Lane for Midnight Circus in the summer (click here), which he loved, but we are running on empty at the moment, and that sort of time-frame suited us just fine. 

We met at the Woodman, "quite possibly the prettiest pub in London" for a cheeky pint.  Within minutes the place, and the pint, was working its magic and soon we were chatting about moving back north of the river... Hmm, alcohol and circus. Do the two mix? I hesitated for a moment. I'd been prevented from going on a trapeze only a couple of days earlier by a large glass of red wine. But then, this would be just an illusionary experience. There's no real danger...?

Wearing headphones that gave the background story we were ushered urgently through dressing rooms, the theatre's haunted corridor (not part of the theatre narrative, just the ghost of knowledge gathered from a previous tour) and into a our very own dressing room where, shortly after our guide became the ringmaster, we morphed into those daredevil Spavaldos brothers,  from a bye-gone era of circus.  We put on a pair of video goggles that occluded all other vision and stepped into the arena. It was extremely disorientating at first, and all the more enjoyable for that. Jeez, I thought, technology has come a long way since The Lawnmower Man.  Having also grown up on the Adams family and legends of the ghostly Hairy Hand of Dartmoor, I was familiar with the concept of a ghostly guiding hand that led us round, re-orientating us. I liked that this one was a beautiful hand, soft, smooth, strong and feminine. Part of me would have liked to go it alone to explore, but the other part appreciated the irony that a disconnected hand was reinforcing an element of human connection in the digital experience. And I think that is important as the type of audience this show attracts will be, in the main, a generation familiar with likes of Punchdrunk theatre and Secret Cinema, seeking out a dynamic interaction with performers, and feeding off that energy.

Soon we were touring backstage a big top, brushing past feathered boas, and the scaled variety, preparing for the performance, taking a bow and then winging our way up to the top to the trapeze for the grand finale. It was very cleverly done. The butterflies and the dizziness were genuine. My husband wondered if I would be blasé about it, having taken trapeze classes, but no. If anything, edging my toes over the platform was a heady rush, enhanced by memories of classes past and the anticipation of ones to come. Maybe there was a smidgen of disappointment, initially, that I would be sitting on the swing, not standing, or hanging from it, but that was instantly forgotten in the beauty of the moment, which involved simply extending the legs, leaning back and soaring into the sky,  immersed in the sensory.

The whole experience made me wonder further about the global connection of circus. It came via a simple question from a Singaporean nonprofit initiative that brings circus to the community and hold the annual Bornfire Festival. They had come onto my radar via Twitter, and an allusion to involvement in projects further afield, such as in India, made me wonder openly if they had come across Circus Kathmandu (click here ) who rescue children being trafficked in circus and give voice to their experience using their own circus language. To hear their stories in their own words  click here and check out their video on the One Percent Club fundraising page. 

When Circus Kathmandu had finally made it to the UK in summer, they received a spontaneous standing ovation in the Pyramid tent at Glastonbury. Bornfire wondered if I had seen them perform? Well, no, but thanks to videos and reading reviews like that of Kate Kavanagh in the Circus Diaries (click here for her review of their show "Swagatam"), I felt I had been there, to a certain extent. Not quite the same, but the next best thing. Now, with the likes of Il Pixel Rosso's technology and flair for spectacle, maybe one day we'll be able to engage more fully with performances on the other side of the world. Imagine. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Chapter 49: Dining out with Crashmat Collective

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” 
"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber

Are you a daydreamer? Chances are if you are reading this blog you like a bit of escapism. I certainly do. Taking up circus skills for me has been my way of carving out a dream space, and a natural progression from (over?!)exposure to the phenomena of the immersive experience, whether it be in performance art, theatre, cinema or circus, that has been evolving over the past couple of decades. I love how the fourth wall of the audience tumbles down, and the way boundaries between reality and spectacle blur and dissolve. There is a sense that you are connecting with "the purpose of life". Or simply connecting. Well, anyway, I was curled up on the sofa the other evening watching Ben Stiller as the ultimate fantasist in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and fell asleep half-way through. Before I knew it I was dreaming of having an affair with my own husband in a sequence straight out of Dirty Dancing, and I'm holding Crashmat Collective mostly to blame. Make that thank.

Crashmat Collective is a dynamic, young circus theatre company based in Wales, supported among others by their friends at NoFit State Circus (see Chapter 9 - click here), with whom many in the cast have worked in the past. They are currently touring with their show Façade, where the waiters who serve up the three-course meal are also the performers, acting out a succession of Mittyesque scenarios. It brings new definition to the term "holding down two jobs at once", and it's a surreal dynamic as they flip between the roles seamlessly, fusing the two realities together.  It also makes voyeurs of us all. 

Now, the last time I heard the words "immersive dining experience" was when I was invited to the Fawlty Towers experience, so imagine my amusement when we turn up to find our waitress introduced as Polly (Laura Moy). But there the resemblance ends.  Thoroughly efficient, we were each given an acrobatic colour-coded badge to distinguish the meat- from the (waldorf) salad-eaters.  The maitre d' is Claude (George Fuller), who has "impeccable","comic timing", "consummate" and "CLOWN" written all over him, and has you laughing already as you enter the restaurant space. And what a space too, we are seated at tables of ten in the intimacy of the round at The Albany in Deptford. There were six in our party, and while we chatted amiably before and after the performance to the two other couples we didn't know, for the main all conversation was suspended as there was so much to take in all around. 

We soon find out what is going on behind the scenes in Claude's restaurant for the gossip is dished out along with the dinner as we are made privy to the waiters' innermost thoughts.  As well as quips about the customers, and a subtext of cheeky banter,  there is an ongoing narrative of longing. Stories of frustrated desire, or simmering anger that take flight in the circus sequences. There is something very Tennessee Williams about it, which is funny because the theme to True Blood is used at one point, conjuring up the southern smoulder encapsulated in the uber-sexy belle Jolene, aka Anna Sandreuter (co-director with Paul Evans), who plays the vamp to perfection in her signature red heels, all hips and hula.

Andy Davies as Kade
Laura Moy as Polly

At the other end of the spectrum is Alice Ellerby's naive Rose whose desire is sublimated into her love for her pet gecko, Patrick Swayze, and whose Baby-style character doesn't quite know how to be sexy. But then she hits the cloud (the swing that's kind of a cross between a slack-rope and a trapeze), and literally takes off. Cue Dirty Dancing routine, with the rest of the cast in a choreographed chorus. Rose has "The Time of My Life", as do we watching her blossom, as though incarnating the sexual empowerment and liberation of circus. And how we cheered. 

Andy Davies is the war veteran Kade whose backstory hits home, powered by his turn on straps and hand-balancing. Brice, (Kevin McIntosh) was so effortless on cordon lisse that I forgot the involuntary shudder from the prospect of pain that normally happens when I see a rope hanging, and we laughed at the comedy of Libby (Gemma Creasey) and Brice's struggle for managerial power worked out on aerial hoop.  

In addition to the beauty, strength and choreography of the circus routines, special mention must go to Laura Moy. It's hard to know which we found more impressive: her skill on the Chinese pole or her verbal dexterity. The rhythm and imagery of her poetry - "I ate a pencil and vomited up the lead" - knocked us breathless.  

While the evening was an engaging, sumptuous and imaginative feast for the senses, we were left with one lingering mystery ... what happened to the gecko, pet?! 

Note: Façade will be showing at the Arts Depot, North Finchley, on Friday 21st November.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Chapter 48: Barnum the Musical, encore!

Come Follow the Band

"Staying home living day by day, may be safe but it can't be duller,
Seeing things only black and grey, when the world is alive with colour.
Doing just what your neighbours do, maybe wise but it ain't so clever.
Every man has a dream or two. Let 'em go and they're gone forever."
Barnum, "Out There"

I was toying with the idea of giving up the blog last week. Juggling family life while carving out this circus space feels like a precarious balancing act at times. So I took myself off to a friend's couch. A friend who has multiple children, trains at Circus Space and guides people for a living, albeit around London. Someone who I could count on to understand, and, crucially, to talk me out of it. I'm clever like that. And that's what she did, with words of wisdom worthy of circus impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum himself.

I love the idea of a Barnum and Bailey Circus and the whole Big Top scene.  What's the attraction? The glamour. The razzle-dazzle. The sexiness. The laughter. The jaw-dropping feats that make you gasp in awe "That's impossible!" or "I could never do that!" and then, in my case, comes the siren call of that still, small voice inside piping up "but I'd like to give it a go...". The Big Top for me represents a space to think big and go for it. 

Funnily enough though, I never went to the circus as a child. One of my older siblings had once been so scared by clowns that by the time I came along, number six, my mother had sworn never again. Maybe that forbidden fruit of clowning is why I am so partial to a spot of it myself. Anyway, one day, back in the 80s, BBC1 screened the musical "Barnum" starring Michael Crawford, showman and stunt-meister par excellence, and I was immediately captivated, from the very first catapault.

The musical tells of Barnum's life with his beloved wife Charity, a patchwork of honest browns, taupes and gentle tones who both contrasts and ultimately complements his own glitzy, vibrant brand of humbug. The show charts Barnum's career moving from the world of exhibiting curiosities in museums to going on tour, the acts he picks up, including the beautiful Swedish Nightingale, who he really picks up (and then drops again), to Barnum's mind-numbing stint in a clock factory at his wife's behest, his foray into politics and his eventual return home to all things circus, with his pal Mr Bailey.

We saw the show twice last year at the beginning and end of the run at Chichester Festival Theatre, which I presume was producer Cameron Macintosh's trial run for a West End transfer, and now this year on tour at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Each time the children have enjoyed the music, the colour and the spectacle, but essentially we have seen three very different shows.   

Trailer for Barnum at Chichester Festival Theatre:

The first time round Chichester Festival Theatre was being revamped and we saw the production in a temporary construction that from the outside looked like a big top tent. Perfect.  There was a slated, wooden walkway with lights leading up to it and a variety of stands outside selling old-fashioned humbugs (the mint kind) and other transports of delight.  It was summer and there was very much a festival atmosphere. In the performance itself there were fire-eaters, tumblers, acrobats on silks, jugglers, and my favourite, the aerialists spinning umbrellas over the waltzing lovers (see trailer). It was simply enchanting. It happened to be press-night as well, and it was evident that the poe-faced critics sitting in the row in-front were not going to be huge fans. The lead, Christopher Fitzgerald had obviously been giving it his all in the run-up and had lost his voice, and he didn't make it across the tightrope. However that disappointment just made his Barnum all the more fallible, and we rooted for him. His is the Barnum who makes mistakes and picks himself up, he is the grafter on the make, the cheeky chappy, the fighter with chutzpah. And that's why we went back at the end of the run. In the second show we saw, same location, the songs had been cut, along with some of the circus performance sequences and it was altogether more streamlined. Christopher Fitzgerald was on fire and triumphed on the tightrope. How we cheered. 

We needed cheering up ourselves the third time round. My husband was unable to join the kids and I at the last minute. Still, we knew the score - quite literally, actually, as the kids know every song backwards - and the moment we stepped over the threshold to the theatre, the show worked its charm. 

Cutting it fine as ever, as we ran down the stairs to the stalls we crossed paths with circus performers coming up.  They instantly engaged with the children, making jokes, throwing them balls, and a cute aside in my direction was an instant pick-me-up. We were laughing all the way to our seats. When we got there the fun and games continued. One juggler had my son throwing clubs, the girls got my daughter involved in a hoop trick that very nearly worked, together with ribbon twirling. "Honey, we need to get you into a costume" they told her, and my daughter's face just beamed. Priceless. 

The production in Wimbledon had a much smaller performance space than in Chichester, and the circus skills showcased were condensed, but the interaction beforehand really drew the audience in. The kids loved the staging of the Tiny Tom Thumb, peeking out from an oversized armchair, dancing among the towering Bearskin Guards on stilts, and the marvellous Jumbo the Elephant, all legs and a trunk, which this time round squirted water at the audience. For me, music is at the heart of the show and the live band, walking among the audience at the beginning of the second half, was a joy. Brian Conley in the lead was a consummate entertainer and a credible, confident Barnum, not a step out of place. His experienced Barnum has been through life, and is resigned to the knocks he's had along the way. His wife, Charity Barnum, was simply lovely, and a surreptitious wave to the kids at the end in the final bow meant they were floating on air the whole way home. Magic. Again. Encore! 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Chapter 47: Circus skills are good for the kids - scout's honour!

I love a cheeky pun, so the page 3 headline in the newspaper was always going to catch my eye. Only we're talking The Times, not The Sun. 

"Were you ever a Scout? I'm a frayed knot"

Well, boom, boom! I read on. The article registered outrage among certain quarters about the decline of traditional "relevant" skills like knot-tying in the scouts association, and by extension the girl guides, in favour of new activity skills badges "covering areas such as youth work, circus skills [...] and street sports such as skateboarding". Children's author GP Taylor declared: "This just shows what a pathetic society we are becoming. Baden-Powell will be spinning in his grave. He would be outraged by this."

While I agree there is often pathos involved in clowning around, it's surely wrong to write off circus skills, and the like, as pathetic. The circus skills I've come across require courage, trust, focus and hard graft, and you even learn how to tie knots (with your feet, on the rope, if you're lucky!). They also require physical stamina, core strength, and, dare I say it, mindfulness, something that competitive team sports at school don't really develop. 

Then, that evening I stumbled across one of the most engaging and inspirational TED talkers it's ever been my joy to watch. The talk was given by tightrope legend Philippe Petit, subject of the Oscar-winning documentary "Man on a Wire", and had been shared by Airborne Circus the same evening that Nik Wallenda was crossing blindfolded between towers in Chicago, buffeted by winds of up to 25 m.p.h.

As Petit was describing his adventurous childhood he struck me as a regular Boys' Own hero, encapsulating the spirit of Baden-Powell's own rhetoric: “Where is there a boy to whom the call of the wild and the open road does not appeal?"  Petit progressed from magic tricks aged 6, to juggling and then to the high wire as a teen, thanks to an enterprising, curious spirit.  And it is this coupling of common-sense and ingenuity that is be the badge of honour of any true scout.  You should hear for yourself how he constructed his very first tightrope:

Baden-Powell considered that fun and games had an intrinsic moral value to them, and I am sure from that stand-point as well he would thoroughly appreciate the final story in the TED talk, where Petit describes how the stringing a tightrope between Israel and Palestine built a bridge in more ways than one. 

So if Baden-Powell really is "spinning" I'm sure he's just showing off a few new-found circus tricks beyond the grave. Heaven, really. 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Chapter 46: Trick or treat?!

So let me tell you about last night. It was Halloween. While a couple of glasses of red wine touched lips in the hall, I donned a mask and slid into the night on the arm of a gentleman in a black velvet frock coat and silk satin shirt. The entertainment that followed involved a naked torso, a number of threesomes and plenty of whip-cracking. Eyes Wide Shut yet?! Welcome to my world. Trick or treating with the family, then an evening at the Moscow State Circus on Clapham Common. That's how we roll in Nappy Valley. 

We arrived at Clapham Common to find friends waiting at the entrance. The children raced around together in sheer joy and delight at the sight of the colourful circus tent, only stopping for popcorn, thankfully the salted variety after the sugar rush that is trick or treat. The doors opened and we flooded in to the two-tiered unreserved seating area, the majority being red plastic chairs, with a few rows in front of velvet-cushioned seats. I imagined the latter being filled back in the day with Kremlin officials and their families. You see, maybe it's the name "Moscow State Circus" but there is a sense of walking into some sort of socialist time warp (it's just a jump to the left...) back in the 80s. Maybe it's the bombastic music, the costumes, the lighting, the roller-skates ... even the audience clapping at the end is orchestrated by the performers to keep a steady beat so that no specific act is singled out by particularly fervent applause. We are all in this together, comrades.  

In the centre of the ring was a rather kitsch Venus de Milo statue. A replica from the real "Gorky Park" - also the name of the show - maybe? The show title brought to mind that 80s phenomena The Scorpions who sang "I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change".  The song celebrated the tide turning with the fall of the Berlin Wall (25th anniversary in November, guys), and the period of Glasnost and Perestroika that it heralded it. It was a big hit in Germany for sure. I know this because I was on a exchange trip there at the time, and the memory of a fortnight of teenagers earnestly singing about "the children of tomorrow" still haunts me. Still, I wondered at the statue's function, other than ornamental, until in stumbled a man with a plank, in a stripey top and a beret. Within seconds he had toppled the statue and was trying to piece it back together, this king of slapstick, Monsieur Val Defun, ouch la la! My son nudged me, delighted "I think we've found our clown, Mum." 

The first serious act was handstands. Now, the description "handstands" really wouldn't sell it to me.  But luckily the audience is invited to take (and share on social media) photos.  So I did. Here you go - gratuitous shot of a naked torso.  Only it's not gratuitous, not really. I took the picture out of pure (as the driven snow, honest guv) admiration for sheer strength and poise. I still cannot quite believe how long he held the positions. My son kept nudging me "Wow, just wow, Mum, can you believe this?"   And that was pretty much what happened the whole way through the show - we were open-mouthed in wonder at the skill and stamina of the performers.  There were the the jugglers tossing balls every which way, even from upside down on a pole, a dream of red satin gracing the air on a neck-loop, a scantily-clad triumvirate spinning on an aerial wheel, dizzying hula-hooping, soaring sommersaults through the air and captivating catches on trapeze, ("don't try that at home, will you Mum?!"), all set to anthems that if they weren't straight out of James Bond, like Live and Let Die, surely should be. The kids loved the Kozak whip-crackers, especially as the act subverted their expectation, as initially presented, that the man was in charge and the women was just his sidekick, and, when her skirt was whipped off, Mummy here thought it was a moment of pure Bucks Fizz Eurovision. The kids had to watch through their hands the "acrobatic soldiers"tumble off the Russian swing, while for me it was the roller-skating threesome doing staggeringly speedy tricks on a tiny platform.

The children's all-time favourite part of the show, though, was watching one of their own perform - a boy, earlier in the evening "picked" from the crowd, who at the end was dressed as a mini-me Defun, speeding round on a unicycle and whipping up the audience. The cast isn't huge by any standard, which made the variety and scope of their acts all the more impressive, and I felt rather gutted for these astonishing performers giving it their all, second show of the evening, to a half-full auditorium. Maybe it's because it's Halloween, but I for one was haunted by the empty seats. Then again, the programme was out-of-date, selling at only a couple of quid (reduced from £5) as they've run out of the current edition. That made me laugh. Looks like demand does outstrip supply after all. Good luck to them. 

Happy Families at the Moscow State Circus