Monday, 27 July 2015

Chapter 94: Circus Girls go LIVE!

"These girls swing. They bend. They breathe fire. What's not to love?"

Photo: Channel 4/All 4

There are still people out there for whom the word circus conjures up a Big Top and lots of animals doing tricks, for whom the human element is little more than a interlude between the tiger-taming, or the elephants on their hind legs.  If you are reading this blog, I doubt you are one of them. But still, the clichés are out there, somewhere, just down the line, as Barnum once said. So I'm thrilled to see the release today of Circus Girls (see Chapter 90 - click here) by the Channel 4 online channel "All 4", which bears testimony to the talent, creativity and dedication of seven women to their art. There is also the invisible presence of an eighth, Estlin Love, who introduced film-maker Umut Gunduz to the world of circus originally.  The series spans a range of skills that will most likely be an eye-opener for the general public, who doesn't generally see much beyond a juggling clown or a flying trapeze.  In each episode there is a different handle on what drives a woman to be circus strong, and why they have chosen their respective discipline, that builds into a cohesive body of work. 

These are portraits of independent free spirits who, you sense, are both uncovering and discovering themselves in their work, and I think the ultimate test of courage is the way they choose to entrust that message to Umut. 

Angelica Thistel Klüft - Straps
Imogen Rose Macrae - Cloud Swing
Lynn Scott - Contact Juggling
Le Renn: Jackie Le and Rebecca Rennison - Aerial Hoop Duo
Missy Macabre - Fire-Eating
Lily Raptor - Contortion 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Chapter 93: Bring the Noise! - Jacksons Lane Postcards Festival

Last night at Jacksons Lane was a high-octane blast of circus.  Like the previous evening there were a number of acts, but gone was the domestic space of Mama's Kitchen, this was rebellious younger brother Bring the Noise! 

Ambient music framed the techno graphics projected onto the back curtain, and the club scene even had its own go-go dancer with a hula hooper in the nets above. Antonio, from the night before, was wandering around, fan in hand, in a completely different character. Now a flamboyant clubber, seeing  him in action later on the Chinese pole was one of the highlights of my evening. Antonio knows how to work the anticipation, you see, holding a substantial pause before each dramatic drop, and watching that is like being on a roller-coaster, moments before the plunge. I experienced a similar legal high watching the parkour boys, Dan and Mike, making use of every available space, springing up onto balconies, tumbling from the top of the stairs onto stage, and surprising a few circus boys from the audience by dragging them into the centre to then sommersault over them. They reminded me of the Circolombia boys, doing crazy stuff with street savvy.  

I was glad to see the newly formed Alula Cyr girls, Fiona, Lil and Jess, finally in action, having seen them individually in other incarnations. Lil was singing too, and her unaccompanied blues number gave me goosebumps. With all these girls I warm to their confidence and spark while they execute manoeuvres like the splits spanning the wheel, balancing on top, and spinning inside, until limbs blur in a way that recalls (and regenders) Leonardo's Vitruvian Man.  

I'm sure Leonardo would have enjoyed sketching the movements of Felipe Reyes' torso, and the lines drawn by his legs, as his hand-balancing made full use of the range of movement possible, alternating and rotating, on the four canes at his disposal. And speaking of mesmerising circles, Sylvia with her LED hoops was a psychedelic spectacular, inducing a club-like trance in the audience. The sensational light show she generated, through a meticulous programming of the the hoops' lights to co-ordinate with the music and movement, made this magpie here very, very happy. 

There was also a beautiful solo dance turn from an ethereal Natalie James, a challenging interpretation of a heavy metal track from Lina Jungergard, and Angeliki Nikolakaki powering home the finale on straps, in a shower of rain. As she spun there, face up to the sky, it reminded me of those days when I could go out clubbing all night, without a care in the world, and get lost in the music. It's primal, it's joyful, it's elemental. Jacksons Lane, came the whisper, where else can you see a show like that for a tenner?!

Performers - in order of appearance:
Alula Cyr Wheel (Lil Rice, Jessica Ladley and Fiona Thornhill)
Natalie Nicole James (dance solo)
Lina Jungergard (aerial rope)
Dan Edwards and Mike Morgan (parkour and free-running)
Felipe Reyese (handbalancing)
Silvia Pavone (LED hula hoops)
Angeliki Nikolakaki (aerial straps)

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Chapter 92: Mama's Kitchen - Jacksons Lane Postcards Festival

"How would you like to bash some nuts, then?"  asked Kate. Absolutely. We were in Mama's Kitchen, a show that is part of the Postcards Festival at Jacksons Lane, and we were cooking. The auditorium was unrecognisable from the night before. Gone were the chairs, in their place an assortment of large cushions scattered around and people were, well, lolling. I was wandering round with a Highgate special-brew elderflower gin and tonic, feeling decidedly strawberry fields with my gold wristband (a neat festival touch in place of a ticket), and was drawn to one of the two stands where the audience could either make bread or cake; in this case an organic, gluten-free, banana and nut loaf with Kate. 

What did I know about the show beforehand? That Shunt artist, Layla Rosa, effectively the show's matriarch, had gathered together her "family" from the world of music, comedy and, of course, circus. To be honest, I don't think the cast had much idea beyond that either, as the whole design of the evening was to create a relaxed informal space nurturing improvisation and experiment, Mama's Kitchen being a place to try out new recipes in a welcoming environment. Maybe that's why now, at six o' clock in the morning, I find myself at the kitchen table, cup of tea to hand, working my way through on a bowl of blueberries and chatting away to you. 

Back to Mama's Kitchen, the doughs went into the ovens, with Layla inviting us all to share in it at the end, releasing mouth-watering wafts of baking breads throughout the evening.  Then, if music be the food of love, play on. Live music was courtesy of the rich vocals of Djanan Turan, soothing in her song recommending the remedy of honey and lemon to her lover, searing in her rendition of a traditional Turkish song, while Layla's dulcet tones singing "I'm sticking with you, because I'm made out of glue" and their later beautiful duet together reinforced the notion of music, and art, as life's sweetener, connecting the community. For the rest of the evening, music became a personal handle for a variety of acts that made use of every conceivable space in the theatre, and on occasion shuffling the audience round to enable that. 

To begin with the theatre went dark, and then a light directed our attention up to the rafters where Tamsin was treading across the netting. On reaching the other side she sat down, swinging her legs over as though on a seawall about to dip her toes into a turquoise sea, accompanied by an atmospheric retro track that made by think of a 50s St Tropez, before scaling down the rope with gamine grace. 

Next up was Gemma from the night before, letting rip her inner duende with flamenco for the 21st century on Chinese pole that made you feel good to be alive. Blue eyes, blond hair, wearing jeans and a top, with a flick of the wrist and a clap she nonetheless conjured up a raven-haired Carmen from the South with a flounce of a dress. Venga! 

Sophie Rose followed with the first of a series of comedy interludes describing a rather hapless love life with dead-end Craig, starting out in a disco to that Calvin Harris club anthem "we found love in a hopeless place", but with that spark of the woman who has had enough. Sophie was killingly funny, she had everyone in stitches relentlessly, and if you are lucky enough to be up at Edinburgh seek out her full-length show. 

Nothing prepared me for the astonishment I experienced with the rest of the audience as Rosie then emerged, a blossoming, radiant Madonna, 34 and a half weeks pregnant (those halves are very important at that stage!), in a crop top, leggings and resplendent belly. A voiceover of Rosie reading out from a pregnancy manual of what to expect that month (that took me back!) gave way to the Ave Marie as Rosie took to the hoop, threading her way though the it, spinning, stretching, an ease of splits, moves that would be extraordinary even without the bump that totally shifts her centre of gravity. Later extracts of conversation from amazed strangers who had glimpsed her in rehearsals, captured the wonder of the performance delivered with skill, beauty, tenderness, and above all serenity.  The transition to a David Attenborough narrative made us all laugh, and also brought home that no matter how civilised society gets, how overloaded with technology, we are all part of the animal kingdom and basically a miracle of nature. I was overjoyed, later, to learn that Rosie's own mother was in the audience. 

Tamsin returned later, this time with Ilona, over from Finland especially for the evening. The two of them improvising their way down the handrail and up to a ledge in an act showcasing both playfulness and jaw-dropping strength and balance. Antonio was next, embodying a moving portrait exploring gender and sexuality. "Baby Girl, do you know how it feels to love?" asked the song as Antonio weaved his spell, wearing a pleated skirt layered over his trousers that followed the fluid motions of his body, surrendering himself to the performance.  What I loved about the choreography was the way it carried Antonio onto the mini stage in front of the guitarist, in a move that you sense was both improvised and inspired in the moment, carrying us away as well.

Aislinn and Pablo did a sketch as a director and aerialist working out a piece on silks. As Aislinn did beautiful tricks to poignant lyrics returning to "this bitter earth", we watched on enchanted until she would then interrupt the sequence for time-out to discuss with Pablo, in a comically abstract way, the interpretation of movement and the director's intention. In a subtle flip, a discussion of costume indicates all is not what it seems. Why is Aislinn talking about his angelic aerial costume when she is the one wearing a white top? It all becomes clear at the end when she takes her rightful place in the director's chair, a neat twist. Tamsin returned this time showcasing her signature hand-balancing, executing handstands one handed that moved gymnastics into the realm of dance. 

Finally the lights went out. Was that it then? No. A torchlight appeared, a performer weaving her way down the crowd, shining the spot eventually on the main wall where the shadow of spider scuttled past, and then returned, magnifying until its legs became a web. Then followed a staggeringly psychaedelic turn, with music to match, on a hoop, flashes glimpsed through a web of strobing, flashing lights. Finally the lights go on to reveal Ilona in full flight. She was on top, in and under in seconds, suspending time as she held toe hangs for an excruciating infinity, then revving it up again as she swung the hoop back and forward while making every conceivable shape possible, and a number that quite frankly are impossible too. It was an awesome finale to a terrific evening, and ending on that note a fitting precursor to club night tonight with "Bring the Noise!" Get your tickets now. And bring it on! 

P.S. And the loaf was delicious - a (nut)cracking community effort! 

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chapter 91: Cul de Sac and Meeting Point - Jacksons Lane Postcards Festival

One charming night
Gives more delight 
Than a hundred
Than a hundred
A hundred lucky days
(The Fairy Queen)

Experience that for yourself at Jacksons Lane, up in Highgate, now into its second week of the Postcards Festival! It has a stellar line up and a variety of circus encompassing physical comedy, cabaret, contemporary dance, theatre monologues and a club night. I am there for three consecutive evenings this week (and wondering about a  timeshare option on a broom cupboard), and last night went to the double bill of Cul de Sac and Meeting Point, where there crowd was absolutely buzzing. Writing about it on a timely basis is going to be a challenge, especially with the kids on holiday, but I'm setting a 24 hour turnaround for each of the three nights I'm attending in order to capture these fleeting impressions as quickly as possible and to give a flavour for what's out there.  

No better place to start than Cul de Sac, a tango, of sorts, between Chinese pole star Gemma Palomar and the smoothest of jugglers José Triguero. I was looking forward to this having heard so much about Gemma's skill and seen José in action in 8 Songs (See Chapter 86), and it was a joy to see them  together. Their show looks at "raw human behaviour" through an exploration of the dynamics of their own partnership; the tension between working as a duo yet retaining their own personal space, or dominating that of the other. It was funny, it was dark, and, at points, it was gratifyingly absurd. 

At the beginning it would appear that Gemma literally has the upper hand, throwing down balls from the top of the Chinese pole for José to then catch and juggle, then descending, inverted to the point that her tumble of hair literally covers José's face, and swallows it up. Subtilely though, there is a shift. Gemma moves round the space repeating a beautiful movement sequence, followed, and continually interrupted, by José humping the floor. Recognising music from Purcell's "The Fairy Queen"* it made me think of the ethereal Tatiana being upstaged by a subversive Bottom. The clowning mood darkens as José then chucks proverbial balls at Gemma, relentlessly hurtling instructions at her, by turns cajoling and insulting, to make her climb the pole, drop reluctantly, jerkily - not smoothly, as is her want,  - and go up again, more and more. On one level I imagine it is a depiction of a working relationship between circus performers, challenging each other to stretch beyond their limit, but for me, it also carried echoes of a working girl being pumped to death - maybe that's McQueen's influence (see Chapter 86)! With Gemma reduced to a limp, rag doll José is free to give his monologue in the spotlight. It is very, very funny - some of the humour clearly impromptu, and responsive to the delighted audience - owning to a Catholic guilt instilled by the priests at school, underscored with black humour, that made me think of Almodovar's "Bad Education". But the victory of being centre stage is ultimately a hollow one for José - he is in that dead end, or cul de sac, with no way forward without his (sparring) partner, and the final act centres on the challenge of resurrection.

Out of Order - Meeting Point

Contemporary dance intimidates me. I have no education in choreography. Like an abstract painting, I can respond to the shapes and the colours but always with the slight reservation that I am completely missing the point. I wonder sometimes that it's my own Catholic education speaking, that instilled a dread of misinterpreting intentions from on high.

But I will dive into a response to Out of Order's Meeting Point, where circus combined with contemporary dance, because it was an incredibly beautiful piece to which I want to bear witness.  Beginning with a head in a birdcage, and old-style briefcases swapping hands, I was transported to a train station, the start of a journey, with all the excitement of the promise of travel. Watching Angeliki take to the straps, the most challenging of aerial disciplines in terms of strength and discomfort, was exhilarating. Dressed in a white leotard and flowing back trousers, her monochrome costume set her apart from the rest of the group all in black. While there were moments of synchronised dance,  I enjoyed it when each performer had their moment to showcase their own discipline. Eirini and Julian come from a dance background, thetas clear, and JD and Nikki I knew already as extraordinary hand-balancers from seeing them at Circus Space for Canvas (see Chapter 75). In each case I was struck by the shapes that they weaved both in tandem, in groups and individually. The grace of Eirini's hand shapes and movement, the charismatic challenge in Julian's physical language, the steady power of JD's base and the trust in Nikki as she uses him as both springboard and catcher. I loved the meeting point of disciplines - as seen when Angeliki, JD and Julian take a strap each and perform a sequence in trio that was fluid and touching.  Later,  Angeliki quietly strips off in the shadows down to a nude bodysuit and leggings, and takes to the straps, now gashes of red, a particularly striking finale to a series of musings of our journey through life. 

Eirini Apostolatou
Jean-Daniel Broussé
Julian Bulku
Angeliki Nikolakaki
Nikki Rummer

* I saw "The Fairy Queen" a couple of years ago, and was struck by the spritely acrobatics as much as the music. And together with the tumbling toreadors in Carmen, and ex-Cirque de Soleil's Franck Saurel taking the spoken lead as the Pasha in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio", at Glyndbourne recently, again it strikes me that circus is everywhere, if you keep your eyes open. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Chapter 90: Circus Girls

Circus Girls
photo: Channel 4/All 4

As I walked up to the Channel 4 headquarters on Horseferry Road on Friday night I clocked the big signature "4" standing there invitingly in primary colours, like some giant climbing frame. Is that what looking at life through a circus lens does to you, I wondered? And clearly it wasn't just me as, a short while after, the Circus Girls rocked up having used it as just that. Who are the Circus Girls? They are the subjects of a series of portraits by free-lance film-maker Umut Gunduz, for the on-line All 4 (click here) that is due to go live this week. They are, in order of appearance:

Angelica Thistel Klüft - Straps
Imogen Rose Macrae - Cloud Swing
Lynn Scott - Contact Juggling
Le Renn: Jackie Le and Rebecca Rennison - Aerial Hoop Duo
Missy Macabre - Fire-Eating
Lily Raptor - Contortion 

The screening took place in a basement cinema, and the audience comprised of the music makers, producers, and of course the Circus Girls and mates, missing Lynn Scott and Lily Raptor. There was a brief introduction from Umut and Adam Gee, C4 commissioning editor, explaining the genesis of the project: how a chance mention of circus training and injuries sustained by Kat, aka Estlin Love, in a short on relationships, had set Umut off at a tangent down the circus path. I was fascinated by the process of the actual making of the documentary, which merits its own post, and impressed by the courage of each of the girls handing over control of their own story.

Each portrait of Circus Girls is about three minutes long and they fit together as a complimentary body of work, balancing each other out in their variety. I was fascinated how, in such a short space of time, you could get a personal handle on each performer. Without disclosing the content, as such, Angelica's portrait nailed the essential why of circus: the love of a body not for how it looks but what it can do, as the adrenalin and endorphins carry her past the bruises and burns to power through on straps. The portrait of Imogen is that of someone whose spirit has been carried off by the gypsies, and her performance on cloud swing pulls you into a dream space, reflecting her love for all things immersive. Lynn's contact juggling with a crystal ball was hypnotically zen, demonstrating beauty in simplicity in both practice and life-style. Le Renn pay clear homage to the Kill Bill school of superhuman strength, with their focus on power moves, showcasing flexibility and strength and a dynamic portrait of a friendship. Missy Macabre blazed her way onto stage with a serene sense of self, challenging the audience to cross boundaries and own the depths of their desire. It made me think of Alexander McQueen, in the previous post.  Finally, descending into the crypt, Lily Raptor's extraordinary contortion underlined the incredible self-discipline and focus, bordering on the obsessive, and the strength of mind required to keep faith in an industry where you are effectively your own boss, and assume full responsibility for every outcome.  

From left: Angelica, Missy Macabre, Imogen, Jackie, Rebecca and Umut
Photo: Channel 4/All 4
Together the portraits are a celebration, and testimony, to the free spirit and dedication of the Circus Girls to their craft, going beyond reasonable limits of pain and endurance to train their bodies to do incredible things. That, for me, is key to understanding the powerful attraction of a circus strongwoman - yes, these Circus Girls are each uniquely beautiful, but they are not the subject of some reductive male fantasy of a cute crotch in a leotard, rather each is performing the type of work she would like to see herself, and inviting the audience into her space, on her own terms. 

Circus Girls is out this week on All 4.

Photo: Channel 4/All 4

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Chapter 89: Alexander McQueen and the Circus Strongwoman

"There is nothing like a dream to create the future"
(Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862 as quoted in "Coup De Théatre" chapter of Alexander McQueen)

Yesterday was 14th July, 2015. I imagined someone somewhere posting a neat aerial trick set to a Bastille track and shouting "Vive la Révolution!" What an auspicious day to finally be seeing the Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. McQueen actually worked on coats and waistcoats for Les Mis, the musical, and revolutionary frock coats were the signature of his graduation collection Les Incroyables, I've since learned.

What to say about Savage Beauty? Simply that it is the most exhilarating exhibition I will ever see. It has filled me with both awe and an acute sense of loss. Those who the gods love die young, they say. The curse of those who challenge the gods, whose courage and creativity brings the envy and wrath of Olympia crashing down. There is nothing sacred for McQueen, who mines the depths of darkest sensuality and traps the ethereal in a pyramid of glass.  I was fascinated to learn that, in his early collections, McQueen would pin a lock of his hair in each garment as a "momento mori" and death underpins the collections, as does a certain gothic romanticism drawn from Edgar Allen Poe and McQueen's Scottish heritage. As someone who filched Poe's short stories from our convent school library (the copy is still on my bookshelf!) and was schooled in Scotland's grizzly history, through numerous trips to the Edinburgh waxworks and glowering Highlands, such a spirit felt very familiar. 

As I walked round the exhibition I felt the Raven brush against me, the dark bejewelled velvets of Mary Queen of Scots slip through my fingers, and the executioner's heavy breathing on my neck, through his black leather mask. McQueen's monstrously captivating hybrid birdwomen, the regal tartans of his Culloden widows, and the gimp masks, all suggest that danse macabre through history and traditions that McQueen then reforges. "You have to know the rules to break them" he says. And so McQueen rescues the aesthetics of an exotic orientalism from the association with paternalistic Victorian collectors, and exquisitely refashions kimonos counterpoised with American football helmets. I thought of Midori, an American artist of Japanese origins I once met at a talk, years ago, who appeared on the cover of her book dressed in a kimono, next to Dita Von Teese literally tied up in knots. McQueen would have loved that. We shared a taxi afterwards and swapped notes on immersive theatre company  Punchdrunk and the Argentine circus De La Guarda (now Fuerzabruta) - both of which she had seen in New York. This promenade through the world of McQueen, was connecting me to a journey of my own.

Elements of tribalism also pervade the collections as a creative interpretation of the fact that "it's a jungle out there". So I watched women writhing in snakes or encircled by rings of fire (circus everywhere) with the same repellent fascination as I would a sideshow of freaks. "I find beauty in the grotesque, like most artists. I have to force people to look at things" McQueen said, and used the medium of shock on the catwalk to connect us viscerally to our most intimate fears and desires. McQueen tore up the social fabric of convention and created a breathtakingly beautiful body of art for a woman not afraid to be the spectacle, to push the boundaries and to know no limits. That, for me, makes McQueen the go-to designer for the circus strongwoman. And yes, I do have a dress by McQueen, one that despite the softest of fabrics, silk and tulle, makes me feel savagely sexy and in my element. Seeing the exhibition made me feel that too. Not for the faint-hearted, check it out at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You will find an unparalleled adventure awaits.

"There is no way back for me now. I'm going to take you on journeys you've never dreamed possible."

Alexander McQueen (1969-2010)

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Chapter 88: Playing With Fire

Hold On. Easier said than done sometimes. In  a week where the blog has reached 20,000 hits and Twitter followers passed the first thousand mark, you know where that gets you? Teetering on the verge of burn-out. For anyone who wonders how I juggle three young kids, school and nursery childcare, circus training (theoretically 10 hours a week, of which half is in a circus space), watching shows, writing a blog and handling social media... the answer is: I don't. I am constantly dropping balls and shifting priorities.

So last Sunday morning, I was asking myself what on earth possessed me to chuck another circus skill into this laboriously-balanced equation, and sign up to a fire-eating workshop. Especially as the night before I'd been messaging words of consolation to a friend the night who'd just been scalded very badly, and is now suffering seared skin, blisters, puss, and the entire gruesome works.  Was I being an irresponsible parent? Funnily enough, I also had my own mother, with her seering Scottish sight, on the phone saying "Lucy, I've just seen a wonderful circus called Giffords on "Flog it!". Quite beautiful. They also had some people doing tricks with fire on the programme, but you'd never do anything as stupid as that, would you?!" I winced and bit my lip.  Yet as a child I have vivid memories of Mum's party trick of passing her hand through a candle flame, and snuffing it out with her bare fingers, while I could barely bring myself to douse the dying embers. Maybe on some level handling fire is a rite of passage for me.

Last year my curiosity was reignited when I went to see Midnight's Circus (see Chapter 24), chatting afterwards to one of the performers about his journey into the act, and what the fire felt like.  I then came across The Fire School and "liked" it on Facebook, which in turn - thank you FB - flagged our mutual interest to my friend Rachael.  I met Rachael through Flying Fantastic (see Chapter 53 - that's her shadow on trapeze!), we hooked up virtually and she came along to Circolombia at The Roundhouse (Chapter 74). Then a month or two ago, Rachael mailed me to see if I'd be up for joining her for an introductory workshop. Sure. I said.

Now, before you go along to The Fire School, you have to read the information very carefully. Don't turn up with an empty stomach (that justified the pizza takeaway the night before!) or hungover, with alcohol on your breath (there are probably some muppets out there that need that spelling out to them), and yes, fire breathing is dangerous and the fumes are carcenogenic if ingested.  Wear fabrics made out of natural fibres that don't catch light so quickly, denim and leather are great. If you are thinking of going, read it in full here at

Going through my clothes was a revelation. My jeans are too tight now with all the muscle I have built up in the past year, in my quest to become a circus strongwoman, but as I generally spend my life on the school run in sports gear I hadn't quite that registered before. And the rest of my clothes comprise either designer pieces, collected over the years, or complete tat. Basically, I could see my entire wardrobe going up in smoke. Eventually I found a grey tank (100% cotton), and a more or less comfortable pair of jeans. Still a little low on fuel, I had a quick power nap and then dumped an espresso into a protein shake to go. It tasted disgusting, never again. By the time I got to The Fire School, I was shaking both with caffeine, and the adrenalin of getting there in time in one (inflammable) piece. Then, when it sunk in what we would be doing for the next couple of hours, I shook some more.

The Fire School is located in East Ham in a warehouse that is home to a community of all sorts of artists, and it feels like stepping into a space where anything is possible. The school is the creation of RedSarah, a highly experienced performer for twenty years, and a natural teacher. Rachael and I warmed to Sarah instantly.  She also has a troupe called The Burning Belles, hand-picked from auditions of her experienced students - see an interesting video in which they feature:  "Playing With Fire" (click here) 

We started with the easy part - watching Sarah demonstrate moving fire across her hand and then in turn moving it over ours, to get a feel for how much pressure to apply, and the speed. I say "easy" - it was still a head shift, as there is no prepping of the skin (the first question friends ask), simply an application of physics and logic. But I knew I was in safe hands. There was no risk there. The scary part is when you have to take responsibility for doing it yourself, especially when it comes to eating the flame, which is something Sarah can't help you with. I couldn't have done it without Rachael there beside me, going through the same steps, but with considerably more equanimity, flair and success. Really, there were points when my supporting leg muscles went into involuntery quivers - a release  of biodynamic energy, my old yoga teacher would call that. And that's an interesting thing about learning to play with fire. It is essentially a zen practice that requires utter concentration in the moment, and working with your breath, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. As a distracted mother of three it was deeply relaxing - it felt as though the class welded me back together.  There is also a deep elemental connection, returning to this idea of fire as a rite of passage, moving beyond your fears, that I find incredibly empowering. And there is this carving out of an adult space. Not everything has to be shared with the kids, after all, and I like this idea of reclaiming a space to feel sensual and strong.

At the end we were invited to put all we had learned during the lesson into a sequence to be videoed. I have dithered about sharing my video publicly for while it is a performance, it is also an intimate portrait of where I'm at right now. But then, that's what this blog is all about...

Thank you Sarah and Rachael. You are flaming brilliant. 

Friday, 10 July 2015

Chapter 87: Snapshots from GDIF: Stefano Di Renzo's "Hold On"

Tugged in one direction at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF), I registered, in the distance, a head bobbing up and down behind a crowd in the other. That evening, flicking through the wealth of information in the festival newspaper, I realised that the act I had missed was Stefano Di Renzo's "Hold On". Dammit. I had come across "Hold On" at Canvas (see Chapter 75) in a speed-dating style market-place at the Arts Depot. In "Hold On" Stefano explores, through use of the slack rope, the precarious balance of an individual struggling to control a system, and the limits that in turn imposes. Well, that struck a chord. It also happens that Stefano is my *Equilibristics  teacher at Circus Space, where I am on the beginners course. Again. In fact I should be there right now, but there is no way round the tube strike so I am here tapping away instead. Ironic really. Luckily, the paper informed me, "Hold On" would be appearing again in the "Dancing City" element of the GDIF festival at Canary Wharf. It meant missing a polefit class on a Tuesday afternoon, but surmounting a number of obstacles in the dash to get there was a pretty decent high-octane parkour alternative. 

Arriving in the nick of time, I sat down on Cubbit Steps by Cabot Square and took in the view. The audience was a far cry from Bohemian festival-clad Greenwich. This time there was a sea of jackets and ties, and I felt in a time warp, rewinding to a period of my life as a child-free suit-wearing accountant in the City and resident Docklander. I was hit by a pang of nostalgia for a time when I was both caught in a system and yet, earning my keep, felt I was my own free agent. That, for me, was the ironic beauty to staging "Hold On" in a financial district. The phallic stack of towering buildings and cranes in the distance had their own symmetrical beauty, alien to the romantic history and leafiness of the Cutty Sark and her environs. The sun was harsh, the sky a deep azure blue. It was the most striking setting, so familiar and yet utterly removed from where I'm at now.

Looking through the camera lens of my phone, I realised I was a bit to close to the stage and moved a couple of rows back to take a better shot. As luck would have it that landed me bang next to Jan, from Joli Vyann (see Chapter 61), and it was a lovely surprise to see a friendly face. As with watching Dynamite and Poetry (see Chapter 85) next to Mr Bates, it struck me how circus and street performance function as social glue, encouraging and celebrating such chance connections in a crowd. Boum.

And then I was struck by Stefano's gentle comedy. Wheeling round a plank with a mug pinned by gravity and skill, balancing on his head utilitarian objects - planks and a bucket - made me think of all the daily chores that press on my mind, ready at any minute to clatter to the ground. I could learn from this. Focus. Then came the turn on slack-rope, and I was mesmerised. You see "Hold On" is the greatest lesson I have taken away with me from tight-wire classes. I have to "hold on" more, to fight for every step, to fight the temptation to surrender to the slightest wobble. That goes for life in general too. Every single day. Slack-rope is even tougher as there is more movement in the line. It requires a different technique, more bend in the knee and the leg muscles burn even harder. Well, that's as far as my experience goes any
way, having made it across a tight-wire a number of times now, but never more than a couple of steps on a slack-line. To see Stefano, il Maestro, in action not only deftly crossing forward and back, but tumbling along the line, tying himself in knots in the system, taking hold of it, on occasion nearly strangled by it, yet keeping his balance, well, it was both great entertainment and a fine example of life in sway. Hold On. Indeed. Bravo.

*A course in equilibristics at Circus Space (the National Centre for Circus Arts) comprises the balancing disciplines of tightwire, unicycle, globe walking and rolla bolla.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Chapter 86: Snapshots from GDIF: Gandini Juggling "8 Songs"


Barololo: île O
After "Dynamite and Poetry" (see previous post) at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF) Celine flagged that Gandini Juggling would be on in a couple of hours. That was news to me, and I had mixed feelings about waiting to see them. On the one hand, my phone had was virtually dead and I could feel the pull home to help my husband with the kids and their homework. On the other hand, it was Gandini Juggling (click here for Chapter 29 and  Chapter 59) with a new show, and the kids were in safe hands. Still, torn and undecided, I wandered round the festival, too late to catch more than a glimpse of the enchanting and quixotic Barolosolo's "île O": two clowns on the water and a tide of music. Next was the charming walkabout through "Bees! The Colony" by Artizani, exploring hives of trompe d'oeils and looking through peep holes. Finally I decided to go in search of a pay-phone to gauge my husband's state of sanity, but was sidetracked passing the Cutty Sark where I noticed Collectif Malunés (see Chapter 84), now clothed again, stretching out before their next show. Slipping over the barrier and clambering up on stage, I threw some awkward French at them, and ended up swapping cards. While chatting, it occurred to me that my francophone husband finds my accent decidedly sexy. Blushing at the thought, I switched into English, and, excusing myself, made my way to the pay-phone where my call went straight to answer-phone. Well, that spurred me on. I left a message invoking the Great Gandini, and all the powers of a Victorian mesmerist that the name conjures up, absolving the kids from homework, and saying I'd be home for bath and bedtime story before they knew it. 

Decision made, I could relax into the festival spirit, drink in the warmth of the afternoon sun and bathe in the balmy breeze. Making my way over to the performance space, I spotted a mojito bar in the distance. Well, in for a penny in for a pound (or six!), and I grabbed myself a drink before sitting down on my multi-purpose festival newspaper. The guys next to me were Spanish speakers, which for me, missing life in Valencia, is a red rag to a toro, and soon we were chatting. It turned out they train at Circus Space too, and their company was a welcome distraction from the dying embers of nagging guilt about the family waiting for me at home. Then on came Gandini Juggling, rocking it, and extinguished the rest. 

The "8 Songs" are all cracking rock and roll classics, perfectly pitched for a festival setting and kicking off with the hellfire of Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil. Plenty of kohl eyes, lots of leather, cut-off shorts ripped red fishnets, t-shirts with The Clash or "Let It Be" motifs, complemented the tracks and framed the talent as sexy and fun.  Now, here's the thing about Gandini Juggling. Their skill is such I simply couldn't keep track of the balls and the tricks. It felt like they were spinning a web, through the movement of objects and the suggestive music, that kept us pinned there. I was entranced. Highlights for me included the transfer of balls from one juggler to another set to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations", the stone(d)-faced lip-synching to Bob Dylan's "I Want You" by a girl wearing a circlet of flowers, and of course Bowie's "Scary Monsters" where two of the girls have hair over their faces (like Cousin It in the Adam's Family), just as able to juggle with their hands behind their backs as in front, so that you lose track of which way they are facing. The final track was a slow burner set to classical music, but with each of the performers wearing headphones and dancing to their own unique silent disco, head-bashing to Highway to Hell, and the like. As they get carried away by the music, caught up in a moment of sheer elation, they begin to strip. Don't we all? Expose ourself one way or another, that is. But the music comes to an end and with it they come to their senses, rockstars no longer but simply "weirdos naked in the street". I shuddered. A bit too close to the bone. Just the way I like it. 

For further reviews and responses to Gandini Juggling: 8 Songs see the National Association of Street Artists at

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Chapter 85: Snapshots from GDIF: Dynamite & Poetry

        La pendule fait tic-tac-tic-tic
- Charles Trenet

Time was ticking. The moment Collectif Malunés were done (see previous post), I was warned in a text from Celine to leg it round the corner to 15ft6's "Dynamite & Poetry" as space would fill up quickly. So I arrived barefoot, heart pounding, plonked myself down and ... Boum! Really, you do have to be careful where you sit when watching explosive circus, you know. Little did the guy next to me, for instance, realise the danger he was in when he sat down to watch his mates, in peace and quiet, only to find himself squashed up next to the one circus geek who would recognise him from a Widow Stanton* interview. I call it serendipity.    

Tain Molendijk on Russian bar
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Fowl play...
Before long, Belgium-based collective 15ft6 blasted into action, and for the next forty five minutes or so I was vibrating with excitement, shaking with laughter and jumping out of my skin. High octane music fuelled the energy of all manner of acrobatics, stunning synchronisations on the Chinese pole, a jaw dropping dive from the top into the barrel of a Korean see-saw and flipping brilliant star turns on the Russian bar that left my knuckles white. There was a wonderful rapport and dynamic comedy banter with the crowd throughout from all the performers, while Thomas Dechaufour played the butt of all the pranks, literally at one point when caught with his pants down. He also delivered up an ode to dynamite in French. You didn't need to understand a word to sense that the romance of the rhymes clashed with the menace of the content ("tout est calme, rien ne bouge, et dans le tronceau de l'arbre, un petit bateau rouge…boum!"), and then it morphed into Charles Trenet's classic Boum! Surreal, and relentlessly funny, these are the ones to watch:

Thomas Dechaufour (French)
Jasper D'Hondt (Belgian)
Richard Fox (British)
Tain Molendijk (Australian)

*The Widow Stanton interviews performers from the world of showbiz and circus. Check out the interview with Tain Molendijk at 

Chapter 84: Snapshots from Greenwich & Docklands International Festival: Collectif Malunés

The last time I was in Greenwich it was to set sail for an evening of romance and adventure, friendship, rebellion and betrayal. Dressing in an ivory satin shift, my wedding shoes and a carnival mask, I processed from the Cutty Sark with friends, sometimes in a wheelbarrow, through alleys and backwaters to a hidden Venice Preserv'd, the Spectator's Guild's immersive production of Thomas Otway's 17th Century play. Crowned the Maria of Il Carnevale by the Wheel of Fortune, I was happy to end up on stage kissing the Doje's ring (my very first tweeted pic), but the evening ended in spectacular tragedy.

This time round I was back for an altogether happier affair. On Saturday I was at a wedding, the most relaxed, romantic evening of meadow flowers and gypsy-philia, as the bride called it, and bunting woven of memories. The following morning I returned to catch up with the newly weds at the Maritime Museum for a family brunch. En route, I was reminded flicking  through Instagram feed that there was plenty of circus happening at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival around the corner, a ten day extravaganza of outdoor performing arts. Maybe I would stop by later, I tweeted a virtual friend who I'd almost come across at Canvas (see Chapter 75), and @ohayeceline's guidance not only led me there but meant we finally met in person too.

First up was Belgium-based Collectif Malunés who so gratifyingly captured the spirit of the festival, as neatly summed up by Celine: 

The topsy-turvy universe of "Sens Dessus Dessous" was a head rush. I enjoyed the music from the whimsical "Elisabeth devant sa garde-robe" to a track about immigration and alienation. Their skill was exceptional: hand-balancing, turns on teeterboard and acrobatics had me uttering expletives in French through clenched teeth (I don't know how to swear in English!). There was clowning around with a basket of apples, a unicycle to sweep them up, when not employed as a banjo, choreographed chaos and much to laugh about. The breath-taking finale of a striptease on trapeze, ropes blending in with the clipper's rigging, had me wondering what my Edwardian grandfather, the last man to sail the Cutty Sark in to dock, would have made of it all. I think he'd have made them walk the plank. For their next trick, obviously...

Events are still going on today and tomorrow (4 & 5 July) at Greenwich and Docklands International Festival  - see - click here.