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'être 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

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