Sunday, 28 December 2014

Chapter 55: Adventures in Wonderland

"I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I've changed several times since then."
- Alice

Photo: Tommy Franzen as Ernest, Lizzy Gough as Alice
Courtesy of

"Man, those guys are crazy" said my nine year old son "When can we go and see them again?" He was referring to ZooNation and Kate Prince's hip-hop production of The Mad Hatter's Tea Party at the Royal Opera House, where "nonsense makes more sense than sense". 

This was our Christmas treat, following straight on from our annual pilgrimage to the Winter Wonderland of Somerset House, where my son and I had been skating hand-in-hand with my husband and six year old daughter round the rink. We were pretty high already. 

We'd never been to the Linbury Studio before. It's in the depths of the Opera House and as you descend the stairs there is a sense of discovering a whole new world underside. In the foyer, tables were set for tea, a trail of riddles decorated the walls, and an assortment of crazy hats hung by an empty frame, inviting funny photos. 

We took our seats and saw in the centre a model of a gothic mansion, with an air of mystery hanging around it. It made me think of the model of Hogwarts we had seen in a trip to the Harry Potter Studios recently. Not in design, but in the expectation that something extraordinary was about to happen. And it did. But you don't need to take my word for it - thanks to the recording of the live stream you can now see the *entire show* here, from around 34 minutes in:

To give you a brief overview of the story, this mansion in the North of England houses a correctional facility where a young, serious, Germanic, bespectacled psychotherapist called Ernest arrives and a whole host of characters who claim to hail from Wonderland are handed over into his care. As he examines each of his cases in turn, he is gradually drawn into their alternative space,  curiouser and curiouser, and irrevocably into Wonderland itself. Aren't we all?!

I loved this production on so many levels and Time Out describes it so well - click here for review. I saw circus inflections in the touches of tumbling, the juggling of rattles and tea-ware, and the choreographed clowning around - there were even a few pies floating around! The dancers and the band were spectacular. Vibrant, engaging, astonishing, flipping brilliant - even my six year old sat open-mouthed and enchanted the whole way through. Afterwards though, she was pretty vocal. And here's the thing: provide the right environment for children to release their imagination and see their story-telling soar.

Watching the production there was also a growing sense that maybe the different characters are all facets of our own personalities at different times - all together at once would be simply psychotic, after all. For instance, I'm the White Rabbit when relentlessly harried by the clock on the school run in term-time, the Red Queen on days when I've over-dosed on caffeine (and I want her flamingo umbrella!), the Cheshire Cat after Christmas lunch, especially when tickled behind the ear, and have already identified with Alice through the Looking Glass on these circus adventures - see post "Why a Circus Blog?". Above all, though, I feel a certain empathy with Ernest, taking time-out for a cuppa, and opening our mind to unfamiliar possibilities, even if others think we are Mad as a Hatter in the process. 

So, there you go. From a Wilde Evening in the previous post to The Importance of Being Ernest at Tea-Time. Chin-chin.

Photo: Isaac Baptiste as the Mad Hatter
Courtesy of

Note: There are so many wonderful theatre and circus spaces engaging children's story-telling. Here, though, I would like to make special mention of my very first ice-guide at Somerset House, Rosie Hudson, aka Rosie Tells Tales - check out her Wonderland at

Postscript: Zoo Nation is back 30 December 2016 - 22 January 2017 at The Roundhouse. See: - click here.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Chapter 54: The Christmas Pole Star and a Wilde Evening

"The Circus. She is a jealous bitch. She will wreck your head, wreck your home, wreck your heart, wreck your harp…"

Local Gift Shop
Local Art Gallery
These words open the trailer (see below or click here) of Belfast-based Tumble Circus. I'd been alerted to them by friends going to see them recently and found their words have resonated ever since. Immersed in circus these past six months, I see #circuseverywhere to the point where I wonder if I'm hallucinating. So I took photos to share. It's not just me, right?! There are days when it does feel as though circus has indeed wrecked my head, home, heart and harp. Amazing how a little bit of overlooked household admin can spiral into dreams of tumbling tumbleweed and partners on cyr wheels spinning out of control, while tugging at the harp-strings has been a sadly neglected practice of late. There are days when I do indeed say, Damn, the Circus! But oh, then there's the Love of it.


Nowhere gets, and celebrates, this dark humour, quite like Cabaret. So on Tuesday night, I went with Anne, my old Circus Space partner-in-crime, to the Albert Hall for dinner at Red's, where cabaret was served up with a twist of circus. The MCs for the evening were the fabulesque Red (Miss Polly Rae) and her Ruby (Reuben Kaye) last seen in Boylexe (see Chapter 34 - click here), on fire as ever with quick-draw repartee. There was comedy and a hint of sauce one the menu, and a Bad Kitty Bang Bang into the bargain, but this was Prince Albert's in Kensington, not Madame Jojo's (RIP) in Soho. Which is to say the acts were terrific, while the audience, bar the cluster of gems on the table next to us, felt a bit lacking in lustre. Anne's handstand teacher from Circus Space, Sammy Dinneen, was the incarnation of graceful strength, while the beauty of the shining Pole Star Klodi in the title picture left me breathless, both acts making the impossible seem effortless. Check out Anne's review of the evening here: "On Connections, Cabaret and Red Shoes"

Sammy Dinneen at Red's Cabaret

Watching the circus acts I was struck by the fact that here are incredibly strong, young performers, being observed by a rather more mature crowd. What would we sacrifice, I wondered, to have that strength, beauty and agility? A question that reverberated a couple of days later with a visit to the  Greenwich townhouse of Mr Dorian Gray, where the Alchemic Order lived up to their name and brought Wilde's portrait to life, quite literally (there are two Dorians).  

I have always loved the book, the brilliant  social observations and dry wit, with  the relentless gothic menace underpinning the story. In this production the audience is invited to a promenade, following the story round a series of spaces indoor and out. The whole house is given over to the spirit of Oscar Wilde and you cannot help but yield to the magic it works on you. The rose petals, candles, spices, music, satin sheets,  silk throws, peepholes and hidden spaces all frame a picture painted by a stellar cast of gothic mystery and the damning desire for impossible, beautiful, youth. See Anne's blog "Passion for all - Dorian Gray and Immersive Theatre" - click here. Despite being so carried away by the company that we missed the last train home, I feel strangely rejuvenated today. In a week when I have been questioning and challenging my own relentless pursuit of all things circus, and whether writing is not its own form of narcissism, I am both comforted, and not a little disturbed, by Lord Henry's advice to Dorian, as lethal as absinthe and alluring as opium,

"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield it."

Damn the Circus, indeed!

Tumble Circus

Note: Tonight (Saturday, 20th December) is the last showing of Alchemic Order's Dorain Gray. Still, if you've missed it, check out their website at (click here). That is an adventure in itself, and keep your eyes wide shut following @alchemicorder on Twitter, and on Facebook, for news of the return of the production next year. 

And do follow Anne's blog at (click here) and tweets @mylondonpassion. Not only does Anne know what she is talking about (she is a City of London tour guide), she is very, very funny.

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Saturday, 13 December 2014

Chapter 53: Circus for Ordinary People

Right, so the other evening I went to the first ever Scratch Night at Flying Fantastic in Battersea (who also run classes in Farringdon), where students were showcasing their own routines on hoop, static trapeze, silks, and a touch of hula. 

The event had come onto my radar as Flying Fantastic is fairly local to me and I was interested in seeing what was going on in the community. And WOW! These are not circus performers in training, but ordinary people using the space as a fitness class once a week and doing extraordinary things. Not that you'd know they are anything but circus professionals from the glitter and sequins, neon false eyelashes, silver bodysuits and spangled leggings flying around. And it was entirely appropriate that Kate, the MC for the evening, was resplendent in a ringmaster's outfit, while seeing rigging taken up and down between acts by a reindeer added a bit of festive cheer, and then some. 

Everyone was clearly having fun and relishing the opportunity to show friends and family what they'd been working so hard on all year. Splits on silks, drops on trapeze, duets on hoops, a whirring rainbow of hulas from every extremity of the body. Interestingly, before the show started, Kate asked the audience who had seen any form of circus before. There was a minimal show of hands, but the collective gasps and riotous applause throughout the evening makes me think next year the balance will swing the other way.

It was great to hear as well that Flying Fantastic are all set to roll out classes for children in the New Year, so I went over to chat to the founders, Edel and Chris, afterwards. My own children still talk frequently about their holiday workshops with Adam at Airborne Circus, (and ask when they are going again!) but at an hour and a half away, it's just not possible regularly. 

That is why I am so excited about a local community initiative, and If you need any further convincing of the benefits of circus skills for young people, click on the link below and listen to the inspiring Marcus Davey, OBE, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Roundhouse: 

Meanwhile, back at Circus Space it was our last lesson of the term and we had our own open house. This meant for Level 1 on static trapeze pairing up to put together a routine for the end of the class, and for Level 2 inviting family and friends along to watch a group routine with turns of solos and duets. I had kept very quiet about this! There wasn't any dressing up per se, but I was determined to channel the spirit of Flying Fantastic and introduce a bit of glitz, so wore a pair of dark silver leggings found in Portobello Market. Paired with a pair of suede over-the-knee boots to travel in, I felt a bit like Aladdin in a Wimbledon Panto. And it's good to have a some sort of persona when you are performing. It makes you braver, and more entertaining...hopefully!

For Level 1 then, I was paired with a guy I'd only met a handful of times, and we had half an hour to put together a routine, which meant going through Layla's list of moves we should know by now and picking of the ones we could both do, and throwing in some music.  I had a sudden craving for Amy Winehouse's Back to Black, which another member of the group luckily had on his phone. Maybe it's because circus lends itself so easily to the whole tango of love, putting the unattainable on display, just out of reach. And also simply because it's a great song. It was so much fun working with a partner, and I achieved far more than I would have done on my own. And for me there was an exquisite satisfaction, similar to dancing a tango, of matching movement and synchronising our sequence. 

Level 2 was a whole different ball game.  We popped off the trapeze in turn like synchronised swimmers to "Walking in a Winter Wonderland", although in my case that meant spinning my legs right through my arms and landing on the floor, then having to clamber up again to join the others hanging upside down clicking our fingers from side to side. A few beats swinging up to sitting, some free-style leg kicking and then we took turns as a solo or in pairs. My input by this point was utterly minimal, but I had fun marvelling at everyone else as the music moved from the festive crooning of "Twelve Days of Christmas" to Fiery Flamenco, olé! 

I got home still buzzing, and was then up til 2 in the morning trying to switch off. If that's the effect of a couple of aerial routines barely two minutes long, how on earth do proper performers ever get any beauty sleep?! Maybe that's one to ask Dorian Gray in a promenade of his townhouse in Greenwich next week (click here) ...

I have a video of my Level 1 performance. It's not perfect, but here's the thing: I look at it and I see another ordinary person trying to do extraordinary things. And they are extraordinary, for me. Looking at it I see not only where I'm at now, but a whole host of possibilities of what I might be able to do in a year's time, or even ten. The following morning I showed it to my children. My six year old daughter turned to me and said "Mum, I am just so proud of you" and that over-rides all and any cringe factor on my part "...even if you didn't do a Mermaid like we did with Airborne Circus" she went on. Ah well, you can't win them all!

I came across a beautiful quote the other day on the Facebook page of the Andalusian circus Festival Circada which captures beautifully what I think (the pretty literal translation, for what it's worth, is my own - corrections welcome!):

Existen casi tantas visiones de circo como personas. O al menos tantas visiones como personas que hayan disfrutado alguna vez en su vida de circo. Seguramente el circo que se asoma por tu cabeza no es el mismo que el juega en la mente de tu mejor amiga. Y solo existe un error posible: querer apropiarse del Circo, con mayúsculas, como si fuera solo uno, como si fuera algo privado que se puede registrar, inmatricular, meter en un marquito y decir: esto es circo, y es mío. Sueña con circo y que nadie te marque límites.

There are nearly as many visions of circus as there are people.  Or at least as many visions as people who have enjoyed circus at some point in their life. And for sure, the circus that pops into your head is not the same as the one that is at play in the mind of your best friend. There is only one possible mistake you can make: wanting to possess Circus, with a capital C, as if there were only one, as if it were something that you can own, that you can register as yours, put a little frame around it, mark out your territory, and say: this is circus, and this is mine. So dream of circus and may nobody put limits on you.

Circus, for me, is a state of mind. Anything's possible. 

As ever, London Underground on the journey home has the last word.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Chapter 52: Circus al Fresco with Ilona Jäntti

Christmas is in the air. Literally, in the form of Finnish aerialist Ilona Jäntti. She was over in the UK doing a residency of research and development at Jacksons Lane, Highgate, which had culminated in a performance at the weekend of a double-bill of Handspun and Namesake

"Handspun is a duet of aerial dance and live cello. Using just a rope, choreographed performance and music, a gentle, dreamlike piece is punctuated with the risk and danger of aerial circus."

Namesake is "inspired by two women; Lilian Leitzel, the greatest aerialist of all time, and [the other] performer Ilona Jäntti’s own great grandmother. Namesake is about strength, beauty and endurance. Ilona doesn’t come from a circus family, or even from a family of artists. Through this piece she honours her own family and her personal history with circus." 

(taken from Jacksons Lane website - click here)

I had not been able to make either performance, so the news that Ilona was to perform a 15 minute outdoor performance on Monday, at lunch-time,really did seem like a gift. Taking full advantage of the kids' last full week at school/nursery, I have to say that even an hour to myself on the Northern Line felt like a treat, and I was also looking forward to meeting an old university friend there as well. 

What I used to love about living in North London was the country feel. Within two minutes of exiting Highgate tube I found myself making my way through the woods to the Queens Wood cafe. Next to it was a children's playground that was to become the temporary stage for Ilona's aerial act. It was cold enough for me to be wearing several layers and a pair of gloves, and I wondered how anyone could grip in such conditions. But then, I had grown up hearing about my father's business trips to Helsinki, with colleagues leaping from saunas into snow-drifts, and reflected that these Finns were obviously made of sterner stuff than me, a Southern Softie. Inside the café Ilona was warming up in more ways than one, in jeans, a fairisle sweater and DM-style boots. The act was to take place in two pieces of around six minutes. That is a long time to be outdoors on a rope that is relentlessly hard-work, painful and unforgiving. So my admiration for Ilona's proposition was already sky-high, through the tree-tops. 

Residual sounds of road traffic could be heard initially, but the moment the classical music started and Ilona began to make her way across a rope bridge, any ambient noise simply dissolved into our awareness of the moment and the spectacle. Ilona used the rope to climb up a tree, winding it round herself until it was held by the grip in her mouth. Then she manoeuvred herself across a horizontal rope twisting, turning, entwining, enchanting, merging with the branches and leaves. The lines her body made as she wheeled over and hung down from the rope had a simplicity of form that complimented the natural surroundings, as did the music she had chosen to accompany the piece. I don't know how else to describe it other than an experience of ethereal grace and of fundamental re-connection to the environment.  

In the wake of (all the rage of) Black Friday and Cyber Monday, where even if you didn't buy into it, there was a sense of time revving up, here was a space at the start of the week for quiet reflection and wonder, which I'm determined to hold onto going forward. There was a nursery group watching among the onlookers, gazing open-mouthed. For a moment I dearly wished my own children were there too, but that was forgotten as soon as the performance over, when my friend and I decamped to the Woodman pub for a festive tipple. So easily swayed. Mulled cider. Who knew?!