Sunday, 31 May 2015

Chapter 79: Geek Love

“There are the those whose own vulgar normality is so apparent and stultifying that they strive to escape it. They affect flamboyant behaviour and claim originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time. They claim brains or talent or indifference to mores in desperate attempts to deny their own mediocrity.” 

Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

*Cringe*. I'm re-reading a classic this week, Katherine Dunn's Geek Love. The title "geek", back in the 80s, (Dunn writes in the revised introduction) like now "carried overtones of arcane obsession, but it also reeked of acne, wretched hygiene, and unsavoury personal habits. Over subsequent decades the usage has shifted and evolved. But the book uses the original, much older meaning. A real geek was a circus or carnival performer, presented as feral or psychotic, who bit the heads off live chickens." 

I once went to a cock fight, while staying with a flamencophile friend, her lover and his family in a gypsy enclave on the outskirts of Valencia. Barely 20 then, I can still picture the scrawny, bedraggled birds running round in circles in the pit, often losing their head. It was an alien experience, both absorbing and recoiling at the crowd's bloodlust to the point where it felt like I was slipping out of my body and hovering ahead, detached. Trauma? Or maybe my own initiation into the grotesque carnival of life. 

And so in the book we enter a world where glamorous, aristo-geek  "Crystal Lil", of the exquisite chicken choppers, hits on the idea of boggling vast quantities of drugs to sire a bona fide freak show: a power-hungry waterbaby, sultry siamese twins, a telekinetic prodigy and the narrator, a bald, albino hunchback dwarf called Olympia. Through her, Dunn's words slip like a dagger into my lectoral vertebrae, and then it's twisted. It's both cruel and unsentimental, while being raw, romantic and deeply human.

However this week I have less time for reading than I banked on and barely progress half a dozen pages. Half-term with the kids on the South Coast has passed in a whirl, spending time on the beach juggling boules (pictured), whittling Big Tops out of sand (well, with a little imagination that's what they could pass for!), catching up with friends and family, and reading bedtime stories without curfews. But the thought of my bedside (table) companion keeps ticking over. As do the words.  Geek love. Geeks and circus. Circus Geeks. Actually I saw Circus Geeks for the new millennium in action with their show Beta Testing at Jacksons Lane recently, again part of Canvas 2015 (see Chapter 75- click here). What did I know about them beforehand? That these guys, Arron Sparks, Jon Udry and Matt Pang, are self-styled circus nerds whose show took seed from a blog, a series of posts exploring the juggling continuum, and that they are superb technicians. 

For me the term "geek" has always denoted a dogged passion that is ahead of its time. It connotes a curious mind, a certain scientific detachment in the research of an obsession or quirk. Well that's the type I gravitated towards at university anyway... And I have a soft spot for jugglers too, dating back to membership of the varsity juggling society (not that you'd know from my skill-set). I feel that while the raison d'ĂȘtre of ethereal aerialists soaring above is to be looked at and admired, jugglers have to work from the ground up, connecting and drawing their audience in, often through comedy and (street) theatre. So juggling geeks were always going to get my vote. 

From left: Jon Udry, Matt Pang and Arron Sparks

The show is a TED-style talk - the audience is acknowledged and addressed, and information is deliver with the dry humour of  a Hitchhiker's Guide to juggling. We are briefed on the juggling lexicon, talked through tricks and given insight into what goes into being  a professional performer. We laugh. When we have enough breath. Each of the performers plays a set role:  Arron Sparks is the super-smart super-geek, Jon Udry is  there to needle him in a spot of one upmanship and haddock bashing, and Matt Pang plays a role akin to an exhibitionist younger sibling (says the youngest of six), quietly getting on with it and when the other two are preoccupied, grabbing his moment centre-stage with a knowing wink. I was so taken by the show that to find each of them pitching their own solo show later at Canvas was heart-breaking - it felt like a boy-band break-up, a betrayal of the bromance dynamic they had so convincingly portrayed. Maybe I had identified them as - or willed them to be - graduate buddies, like mine of old.  Luckily, as Matt Pang later patiently explained to me,  it turns out they've been working on their own stuff for years and that this is the first show that has brought them together like this. You'd never know. 

So catch Beta Testing and keep an eye out for their future productions:

Arron Sparks who with his small-scale and intimate "Down-Up" is as much a moving story-teller as a legend with a yoyo. 

Jon Udry "Punches Gravity in the Face" with a witty meditation on the nature of juggling, a beautiful balloon sequence and is a stellar turn with a teabag.  Showing as part of  the Postcards Festival on 16th July at Jacksons Lane - click here

And Matt Pang with his PanGottic company hat on, innovatively miming to a pre-recorded pitch for the show "Fluke" showcased remote-controlled contraptions that would not be out of place in an inventor's windmill, and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

Circus Geeks show Beta Testing is on at Udderbelly on the Southbank until 21 June - book here:

In the past few days Twitter has been on fire in response to Douglas McPherson, circus groupie and author of Circus Mania, condemning the funding of all performance arts from the public purse in his blog post for The Telegraph: A critic's plea: stop all arts funding now

Check out these two sound responses:
Kate Kavanagh @BustingFree: Come one, come all?
Dorothy Max Prior via @TotalTheatreMag: The funding question: oops, what a palaver

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Chapter 78: On tightwires and wrong turns

Over the past 48 hours I have taken a couple of wrong turns. The first was trying to find a short cut to the Lyric Hammersmith on a Friday night for Bugsy Malone. Two bleeding hours. Though I have to say, aside from the music and a stellar cast, the show was worth it for the choreography of the boxing scene alone. The second was navigating my way from Sutton on Saturday morning to the South Coast. Should have taken an hour. Triple that. Short on sleep, food and caffeine after two hours of flex and pole classes, missed my turning off the M25 and ended up half way to Dover. So I've had plenty of time to do nothing but reflect. And here's my conclusion. Learning circus skills, for me, is a lot like travelling up Fulham Road on a Friday night, or Junction 9-10 on the M25 the morning after. Progress is painfully slow. You try to take a few smart-arse short-cuts, wind up in a dead-end and find yourself on a one-way system back to pretty much where you started. Bump. Goes the ego. And you wonder why you bother. In fact, I was close to calling time on the whole damn adventure and entitle this post "I give up!" but there's another lesson I'm learning - I give up too easily, and there comes a point when you need to hold fast. 

Take learning tightwire at Circus Space (National Centre for Circus Arts), where I am currently on my second beginners course of Equibrilistrics Level 1 learning tightwire, unicycle, globe walking and rolla-bolla. Over the past four weeks I have fallen even more deeply head over heels for this particular balancing act. Literally on one occasion. In fact I still have the bruise to show after being sliced on the wire like a fine Welsh cheese as I slipped walking backwards - note to self to tread more Caerphilly… Unlike aerial, where from the word go you can learn a few neat tricks to impress the folk back home, on a tightwire as a beginner it's a struggle to look anything other than a klutz (in my case). So I was enthralled watching the gracefully adept trio Dizzy O'Dare (pictured, see on a double-crossing tightrope at Circus Space during Canvas (see Chapter 75), making it look so easy as they sprang from one wire over to another, in Gaulthieresque costumes that made me think of a circus tribe of Amazons. Phenomenal. I'm looking forward to seeing the full show of Wires, currently in production, and will keep you posted. What I have learnt from watching Dizzy O'Dare on tightwire, and my own practice, is that you really have to commit to every step you take, and fight for it.  Too often my mind is too busy and I rush it, speeding up, conscious that there is a queue waiting behind me. I give way, and encourage my class-mates to overtake. My posture on a wire is stiff and it sucks. My core is strong, but my shoulders, tight from aerial training and hunched from carrying kids, resist allowing the arms to raise correctly, allowing the balance to flow from the forearms. It's a real battle.

So I put in the hours at a local playground where there is a tightrope that is on the way back from the school run, much to the delight of my three year old. I record each small step of progress publicly on Instagram - if ever there was an incentive to press on...! And I armour myself with handmade leather tightwire boots, suede ballet sole, from the ever-encouraging Isabella Mars (who you may recall also made my aerial boots - see, shoemaking magician, fellow student at Circus Space and performer with Airealism. The boots are both a good luck charm, and an investment, and the first night I wear them I cross the wire! When you do cross a wire and  it clicks, there is a sense of zoning out as you enter a meditative state, focusing intently on the point ahead and trusting your balancing body to get you there. It is addictive both as a challenge and a game and I find a great sense of peace and achievement in the process. Headspace. But I haven't yet achieved the consistency required to pass the course, and have finally outgrown the playground. At Circus Space there are practice sessions open to Level 2 students and above, which I can attend thanks to my L2 static trapeze class, but for the time being an extra evening a week is just not possible. So is this really the end of the line? Of course not. Even if it means signing up for the beginner's course yet again, I can promise you one thing Isabella, there is no chance of your beautiful boots gathering dust - they were made for dancing, and I just can't get enough …

If video below doesn't work, click here for YouTube link:

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Chapter 77: The Circus Mum and Bedtime Stories

The fact that it was Mother's Day last Sunday in many parts of the world would have gone unremarked in our household but for one simple fact. Tidying my son's room that evening I came across an envelope addressed to me, and inside a card he had made, but forgotten to give to me, back in March. He was fast asleep by this stage, and there watching my sleeping boy I read his thoughts. I gazed with bewilderment and awe at this child who likens me to a magical ring, taking him on adventures, and a bed, warm and comforting. Happy dreamer, I think. Which is good to know because in this crazy whirligig of London life it sometimes it feels like I'm fighting a losing battle for my children to have the space just to be, not needing to prove. And not a day goes by without me wondering about the balance, justifying carving out my own circus space and weighing up the demands it places on family life. The circus training is the least of it - that's just the same as making time for the gym. It's the writing, the self-imposed deadlines and the reaching out on social media that is the real juggling act. There are Sunday mornings, like today, when I sit at the kitchen table tapping away, oblivious to the cheerios and milk sploshing onto the table. Emails to friends slip through the ethernet unregistered, letters unanswered. If you want to keep up with me read my blog, join me at circus events, or find me on the school run - you won't see me for dust otherwise.  

So watching part of Upswing's Bedtime Stories at Canvas (See Post 75 - click here), really struck a chord. It is a beautiful piece of circus for the family, a coming of age story really, about keeping connected and sharing time together. The location in The Albany, Deptford, a space in the round, was perfect. Mattresses and pillows for the audience to cosy up on encircle the action, creating an informal space to enter a magical realism together where a child's imagination takes flight. Stars rained down on diaphanous curtains, silks were graced by the young girl, peels of childhood delight rippling through, with an imaginary friend straddling worlds. Then came her mother, distracted, overwhelmed, losing it under reams of papers and admin. My stomach lurched. See the beautiful trailer below for a glimpse of the alchemy of technology, dance, circus and acting that immerse you in a spell-binding world that I can't wait to share with the children. It's on at at Stratford Circus over half-term, where they will also be running parent and child workshops, and returning to the Albany in Autumn. 

Learning the ropes at  Flying Fantastic

The experience of Bedtime Stories brings home to me how circus has enriched our family life and influenced how we spend our time together.  It has introduced me to family shows like these that might otherwise not have come onto my radar. It has introduced me to exemplary Circus Strongwomen - taking their kids to circus, learning circus, teaching circus, running circus companies, circus schools, big tops, performing circus, choreographing circus, writing circus, producing circus, directing circus, leading the way.  It has introduced my children to the world of juggling (my son, the diabolo demon), aerial skills (my elder daughter, in seventh heaven in classes now at Flying Fantastic) and tightrope (my three year-old - we've found one at the local playground on the way home after dropping her siblings at school). We hula-hoop in the garden together, juggle on the beach, perform handstand against climbing frames and acrobatics on monkey bars - child's play on some levels, and now I can do it with them. 

 a Circus Mum hanging around
And it's a funny thing, but today happens to be the anniversary of my launch onto Twitter and into the bloggersphere. The blog started life as an open letter to friends and thanks for performances I have enjoyed. Last summer at Jacksons Lane, wondering where it was going, I said to a new friend, Thomas, that I would give it a year. No, no, he said. Make it two. I thought he was mad, but he spoke with authority. Now on the cusp of 80 posts, pushing 17,000 hits from all  over the world (the Ukraine is my number three following after the UK and US, neck and neck) and followers on Twitter from all walks of life, that to me speaks volumes about the growing interest in circus in the UK, a circus that is exploding in all directions, and now more than ever it is important to speak out and spread the word. Feedback is always welcome - I find, as with feedback on motherhood, it generally has the most unlikely and providential timing. As for the rest, I just have to believe it's going in the right direction and I'll take it, as Barnum might say, one brick at a time …

Note: if the above video doesn't work on your mobile click here for YouTube link

Bedtime Stories is at Stratford Circus from Thursday 28th - Saturday 30th May, and will be returning to The Albany, Deptford in the Autumn. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Chapter 76: Extraordinary Bodies' WEIGHTING

Karina Jones & Jamie Beddard
watching young twins Kika Green & Anna Welch 
There are days when nature seems to mock in metaphors. I woke up yesterday with an election hangover to grey skies and an overcast world. On the way back from the school run, the day before, the CD of Barnum was playing in the car at my three year old's request, and as we pulled up to the polling station we were chanting "taxes have to be increased, to give to those who have the least" - well, that's my kind of humbug, and we were on a roll. Turns out the majority weren't buying it though. So, where do we go from here?

Well, I'm going to start by recommending that everyone go and see Weighting, by Extraordinary Bodies.  The show had come onto my radar after recognising a familiar face (Circumference's Aislinn Mulligan) on a poster a few weeks ago, then hearing more at a pitch at Canvas (see previous post), where a chance conversation there with Nick White, the participation manager, led me to the preview yesterday (Friday). Extraordinary Bodies is a professional circus company, the partnership of Cirque Bijou and Diverse City, that integrates disabled and non-disabled performers, dances and actors, and in the process becomes one body of a company, dissolving separations - as Billy Alwen, the artistic director of Cirque Bijou, said afterwards, "I think in terms of the abilities and not the disabilities". Extraordinary Bodies won £100,000 from the Clore Duffield Foundation for the development of this project that is an uplifting vision bringing a diverse community together in harmony. 

Aishlin Mulligan, Karina Jones & Deb Roach
The show itself is a moving family story about a father, Blake (Jamie Beddard) doing his best to protect his wife Ella (Karina Jones) and daughters, the twins Dora & Myla (Aislinn Mulligan & Deb Roach) from the world outside, learning gradually to let go and take the plunge himself. The action pivots on a central suspended contraption that can act as a staircase, steps leading to new adventures, a crossing place bridging worlds and a tipping point from where to leap to new horizons. As well as the circus performers, actors and dancers, there is a terrific musical score by Dom Coyote, a superb live band (complete with hula-hooping harp player Helen Orford, as I texted my Dulwich-based harp teacher!) and a local community choir under the direction of choirmaster Colin Rea, whose sublime grand finale of "Moments and Memories" is still going round in my head. 

Tom Ball
Among the audience it was great to recognise a few familiar faces from Canvas, including Kate White and Daisy Drury from the National Centre for Circus Arts (formerly Circus Space) which has been supporting the show in the provision of a developmental working space, and Circus Space graduates are involved in the performance as well. Guttingly, though, we only saw the first and last five minutes of the show as rain interrupted play. John Kelly, main vocals and electronic percussion, chivvied people along and kept us all laughing - "blame the Tories!" - and entertained while tarpaulins were hauled out, then pushed back again, temporary shelters erected and umbrellas unfurled, but my heart went out to the disappointment of the choirs of children from two local schools due to be joining in the grand finale who had to go home without performing. For my part, I was glad to have even a glimpse of the magnitude and beauty of this project. The innovative use of the bridge/steps has to be seen to be believed, and the tricks pulled on it at the end by Tom Ball were heart-stopping. A word probably overused in circus critiques, but otherwise I'm speechless. 

Panel Discussion
It was invaluable to have access to the panel discussion as well, comprising (from left to right) the Southbank's Jude Kelly, David Ellington (performer), Claire Hodgson (Artistic Director of Extraordinary Bodies and Chief Executive of Diverse City), Jenny Sealey (from Greae Theatre Company, which provides an exciting platform for world class disabled artists), Karina Jones (performer), and Jamie Beddard (performer). Together the panellists explored the value of diversity. What place does the arts have in society and education? The key word here is Empathy. As Jude Kelly pointed out, all too often in the arts, cultural production  has traditionally both reflected and been blinded by the vision of the white middle-class able-bodied male, which while it is a valid point of view, is not the universal point of view, so when it takes centre stage as it has done, it is to the detriment of multiple experiences and marginalises diverse narratives that need to be heard in order for us to have a connected, functioning society. "You can't understand the world you live in unless you've been listening to the stories of many people, stories that aren't your own." 

So I felt deeply Jamie's disillusionment as he talked of the "profoundly depressing" state of affairs for people with disabilities, that despite the inroads made in the wake of the high profiled Paralympics Games those there today, involved in this project, were the lucky ones, but "the voiceless millions, well it breaks my heart". I listened keenly to the challenges faced within the deaf community, signalled by David who also runs a production and film company, that leave a wealth of hidden skills untapped and ignored. To Jenny's wake-up call for a Revolution that starts here. To Claire on the impact of the  cuts to the Access to Works scheme (click here for further information in The Independent's article). To Karina, visually impaired, asking with a wry smile how many other companies would be up for employing a blind aerialist. The re-election of a governing body responsible for existing and now further projected cuts, both in arts funding and support for people with disabilities, means that now more than ever, voices clamouring for minority rights need to be heard. And, crucially, you don't need to belong to that minority in order to stand up for it. That should be bleeding obvious, but sadly it often isn't and it is worth repeating.  

Cast with musical director, singing, Dom Coyote
That Weighting is happening now, then, is fantastic in terms of increasing visibility and bringing diversity into part of our everyday landscape in an extraordinary way, through the medium of music, circus and performance. The grand finale to the piece where the 180-strong chorus sings of "Moments and Memories" becomes a celebration of our connection as a community of otherhood. It is a moment to hold onto, and time to shout out, albeit in harmony, with one voice that speaks to every body of  diversity. 

Weighting is on this weekend in Dulwich Park - today (Saturday, 9 May) 2pm and 7pm, and tomorrow (Sunday, 10 May) 2pm, with follow up workshops in Southwark next weekend, and will be at four more locations round the country.

Weighting comes under "Plays", one of three programmes of work looking to highlight the value of diversity in the arts, and encourage social engagement. The other two being "Sings" the creation of a mass local community choir, and "Leads" which appoints two cultural leaders to promote integrated practice both within their local community and as part of a community of advocates on a national scale. As this event is taking place in five different locations there is an element of handing over the baton of knowledge and experience to each site specific local community. 

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Chapter 75: Canvas 2015 - An Introduction

Canvas 2015 kicks off at Jacksons Lane
If you are on any form of social media with me, I’m sure you will have registered my excitement about Canvas 2015. But what, where, why exactly?

Canvas is a visionary showcase of the best and brightest in contemporary circus - we’re talking about encountering around 80 shows in three days, with the opportunity to see three full length productions and cabaret at the end, a number of excerpts from tour-ready shows and presentations of works in progress. Such an undertaking has only happened once before in 2013, then under the banner of Circus Now, the name change since underscoring the philosophy of bringing a broad umbrella of work into a central circus space.

Canvas took place in a variety of venues that comprise the City Circ network supporting the development of circus arts: Jacksons Lane, The Roundhouse, the Arts Depot , the National Centre for Circus Arts and The Albany (click on the names to access their sites). Essentially Canvas is a marketplace for buyers and sellers, but thanks to the organisation of Flora Herberich, supported by François Bourdil and team, Canvas had the familar, relaxed feel of a festival - a space to share, connect, spark and engage.

Why on earth was I there? I had been aware Canvas was happening for a while, but with the marketing directed at potential investors - that is to say producers and programmers - with the best will in the world it was not a place for amateur bloggers, up there with gossip columnists in general perception (I assumed). 

So when Flora, who I’ve met at various events over the past six months, emailed me to see if I would be interested in coming along, I was both very touched and thrilled at the opportunity. I also questioned how I could, to use old accountancy buzz-speak, add value and justify my presence there. After all, this blog started out as a letter to a friend and an experiment to document the journey of a mature(?!) student starting out at circus school and to see how far I could get, as much in writing as along a rope. Then I brought shows into the equation, but still in the context of my own personal (Miss)adventure. So this blog, more than a series of circus snapshots, is rather a column of selfies with words. Shudder. For all that, though, I am in a position to see a fair amount of circus, meet people and bear witness to the exciting times in which we are living. The contemporary circus culture has been gaining momentum over the past couple of decades, for sure, but it really feels that there has been a dramatic explosion in the past couple of years.

While this may often slip under the radar of the broadsheets and general press, on-line there are bona fide specialist reviewers who have been charting this development for a number of years and are developing a specific lexicon for reviewing circus. The ones at Canvas were Kate Kavanagh, who writes The Circus Diaries: A Critical Exploration of the Circus World, John Ellingsworth who set up and runs Sideshow the go-to online circus periodical, and Tessa Overbeek from the Dutch website circuspunt. If you are in the world of circus you will already know them well, but if not check them out.

Meanwhile this is my starter for ten. Over the next week I will be offering up my thoughts and feedback on this incredible opportunity to put a finger on the circus pulse, see cutting edge work and ideas in development, chat to fascinating people and the unexpected turns that followed. 

See Canvas website, designed and run by John Ellingsworth. 
On Twitter, check out the latest from Kate Kavanagh @bustingfree and #Canvas2015.