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?! 



  1. Oh, I wish I'd known she was having an outdoor performance! Do you go to EVERY circus event in London? :)

  2. Hi ray ray, haha, yes, I do try! Some things I hear on the grapevine, and always pass on through Twitter @Lucylovescircus. Checking in on Jacksons Lane's Twitter feed is how I heard about Ilona's outdoor performance, and they have loads about the Mime Festival coming up in January.

    This is Cabaret and Circus Space also tend to publish a monthly "What's coming up", and Kate Kavanagh (@BustingFree), as well as writing for This is Cabaret, writes reviews and news at

    Red Christmas Cabaret at Albert Hall next Tuesday, Timber on South Bank, Zippos at Winter Wonderland, Slava's Snowshow at Festival Hall, are all on my wish-list for the month, will see how far we get and keep you posted :)


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