Monday, 28 September 2015

Chapter 105: On Being vs. Doing - The Zen of Circus

"A busy mind cannot stay on the tightrope" 

Following on from the last post, in the spirit of slowing down and staying more in the moment, I found myself volunteering last week to give a one minute speech on the zen of circus to a group of around 50 interesting, inspiring, diverse and dynamic women. It was at a Hub Dot* supper club, exploring the art of being vs. doing, led by their in-house philosopher Niki Barbery Bleyben**. No pressure there then. Well, actually there shouldn't be, because the Hub Dot is an organisation that creates a supportive environment in which women from all walks and stages of life can share their stories. And, as an ordinary woman witnessing an extraordinary time for circus, I felt I had a story to share on what I've been learning. Still, I've done enough teaching in my life to know that ease in public speaking only comes from supreme confidence in self or in your preparation. I'm in the latter camp. 

So, on Tuesday afternoon, the school run became a rehearsal run in front of the toughest audience of all, the kids.  "Hi, my name is Lucy," I began,  "I'm the mother of three lovely children [Mum, seriously, do you have to call us lovely?!] and I write a blog about circus, and learning circus skills..." General consensus was that I should use more expression, as well as my hands (a tricky one that, when they are gripping the steering wheel) but in general, it would do. 

I arrived to a warm welcome from Simona and her team, greeted with a drink and a relaxed, happy vibe in an informal setting at The Imperial, on the Kings Road. The supper upstairs was beautiful, tables and places arranged with thought and care. Nevertheless, when called to give the talk my body was a mass of involuntary trembles. I hadn't shaken that way since faced with the prospect of putting a naked flame down my throat at The Fire School (see "Playing with Fire" click here), and my throat was just as dry. Time to channel that mindset I was about to talk about. Circus is for me an extreme form of zen - crossing the tightrope, dangling on trapeze or swallowing fire requires you to focus on what you are doing. And I really struggle with that. When it clicks, though, there is an element of going into the "zone", and that's why I go back for more. But I wanted to also talk about the fact that so often nowadays we are defined by what we "do" for a living, and how that does not necessarily capture all that we are, or can be. That is central to the Hub Dot philosophy as well, where people make connections by asking not "what do you do?" but "what's your story?". As for me, I choose to define myself now by what I love, drawn to a flexible and open space that knows no limits, circus is a state of mind. It's also a learning space, and I enjoy that sense of wonder that comes with new beginnings. Maybe no surprise then to find myself in a passageway afterwards practicing handstands with Megan, the founder of a great site*** devoted to trying out new skills. It brought home to me the fact that people don't put up barriers when they are having fun, and that's when the synergy happens, just don't call it networking.

*For more information on Hub Dot (@hubdot) check out their site (click here). Read this article in The Times on Hub Dot "Just don't call it networking" (click here) and spot Nell Gifford, from Giffords Circus, in there too.  

** Check out Niki Barbery Bleyleben's blog (Twitter: @girlwoutawatch) - a philosophy I subscribe to ever since arriving at my French penfriend's house with a rundown watch. Madame told me a new battery was unnecessary, we were on holiday time after all, and I have never worn one since. 

*** Follow @_BeginAnywhere on Twitter for the latest updates. The next event is tomorrow (Tuesday 29/9) - a beginner's guide to being amazing, sounds like a good place to start!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Chapter 104: The Circus Not-So Strongwoman

“I am struck by how sharing our weaknesses and difficulties is more nourishing to others than our qualities and successes.”

Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche.

I’ve been struggling recently. Wrestling with the purpose and demands of this blog. It started life as a record of my foray into the circus arena, learning aerial skills at the National Circus to create some adult space outside family life, and have a bit of fun in the process. Along the way I watched more and more circus, a brave new world opened up, and I began to write about that as well.

This all takes time. Time away from the family, or time when I am with the family, but not really present - bashing away at the laptop while the kids make their own breakfast, managing the type of home that friends flock to because “quite frankly, Lucy, it makes me feel so much better about my own house-keeping”. I am totally dependent on my husband's goodwill for childcare. Right now, the rest of the family are playing Uno in the one corner of the kitchen table not covered by a giant jigsaw, half done, like most of the projects in our house right now, so it's time now to set some boundaries, before all my energy and resources get sucked into a black hole, of no use to anyone. 

Here's where I am right now then: a middle-aged, middle-class South London stay-at-home Mum of three young children aged 9, 7 and 3. In a circus setting, under the right lighting, I have been mistaken for something a little more hip and younger - not a day over 34 apparently - and I feed on that bloody energy like some sort of social vampire, to regenerate and carry on. I have a knack for being in the right place, at the right time, thanks to the right people. I pay attention to what is going on around me and find #circuseverywhere. 

Ai Witness: Anish Kapoor & Ai Wei Wei
Anne and I on the left via @ArtistsForNepal on Twitter
Take last week, for instance, when my original Circus Space partner-in-crime, and friend, Anne, invited me on a solidarity walk with Ai Wei Wei and  Anish Kapoor, each processing with a single blanket remembering the 60 million refugees the world over who barely have that. We set out from the Royal Academy  towards the art studio in Stratford alongside these "two artists ... deeply relevant and completely irrelevant... fragile, uncertain, unknowing.. this walk is a simple gesture... galvanising creative energy in simple gestures." Those are the snippets of words I grabbed through the legs of a press photographer anyway. I walked for two hours, meeting half of Goldsmiths and other artists along the way, exchanging ideas, talking among other things, about Circus Kathmandu with Artists for Nepal, and touching on the burgeoning circus movement and the development of an alternative performance language that can both entertain and engage. I left them at Spitafields to head up to a rendez-vous at Jacksons Lane, and as luck would have it, ended up in a sharing of Gandini Juggling's latest work in process "Meta" for the 40th anniversary gala in November. There I saw an enthralling and arresting discourse between action and text in their work, a meditation on the very nature of what constitutes performance, with that tongue-in-cheek element at which Gandini excels.

It was an inspiring day on so many levels, but there is always payback. Of course it is much easier, and far more fun, to hang out with artists than hang out the washing. But the chores are still there waiting when I get home, and, burning the candle at both ends, my light is going out. This year has been a steep learning curve, and so as the blog gains momentum my next task is to learn to set limits, to set aside time-slots for writing and social media, and to learn when to switch off. 


Friday, 11 September 2015

Chapter 103: 35 Amici Drive and Friends

"Hi, would you like to come to our meeting tonight to save 35 Amici Drive?" asked a friendly face, handing me a leaflet. I looked blank. A meeting? Afterwards? I thought I'd come to a show at the Lyric, a short one at that. Had I walked into a fundraising evening to save a local community? Another cause to support. I was exhausted, emotionally spent, nothing left to give. Compassion fatigue you call it, right? I raised a barrier and retreated, too tired to engage, too concerned that I should be putting the kids to bed, not leaving it to my husband, again. It took me a moment to register this was the welcome committee in character, all part of the show "35 Amici Drive" at the Lyric, in Hammersmith.

I didn't know much about the show, you see, or the company. I had only heard about it that morning, when Facebook alerted me to the fact that a couple of friends where going - Joli Vyann's Jan Patzke and Olivia Quayle (Click here for Joli Vyann's show Stateless). I didn't have time to email them, or check which night they were going, so it was a real surprise to find that actually they were in it - circus everywhere - I should have known! I knew that Turtle Key Arts were the producers, and had heard about them through Ockham's Razor. Another familiar face was Jenny Sealey (click here for post on Extraordinary Bodies' "Weighting"). We had never met, but I recognised Jenny from the discussion panel at the press event for Weighting, and very much admire the work of Graeae's theatre company. We ended up sitting together, and it felt like the wheel had come full circle. Weighting had been on my mind recently as the BBC released a reportage about it last week, which I then sent on to the Circus Debere Berhan, an Ethiopian circus company, the first one in Africa to integrate disabled performers. We had just met on Twitter and I wondered if they knew their sister company Extraordinary Bodies, the partnership between Diverse City and Cirque Bijou. Circus Debere's director Teklu Ashagir in turn sent me the following video and told me more about Cargo, their collaboration with a Swedish theatre tracking the story of 14 illegal Ethiopian immigrants, and showing it from an EU perspective. Talk about zeitgeist.

"35 Amici Drive" is the knock-out production celebrating 35 years of the Amici theatre dance company. The company was founded by Wolfgang Stange, integrating disabled and able-bodied performers and the show is a celebration of the empowerment and embodiment of diversity and community spirit. It is energetic, joyful, moving and life-affirming, with a fantastic musical score - and musicians! - to boot.  If my words fail to do it justice here it is simply that I am in a hurry to get the word out and give you a chance to go and see it as well.  

The story centres round the inhabitants of 35 Amici Drive on the Candy Estate, where life is not so sweet. A so-called "regeneration" project by Eastlawn Incorporated, approved by the fictitious  Streathlee Green Borough Council, headed up by the divinely insouciant local MP Mrs Hatcher, is about to evict the residents, and their individual histories and herstories are interwoven into the battle to stay. 

The mischievous Mr Loki, living up to his name, introduces us to both residents on one side and councillors and developers on the other, and leads all a merry dance. It took me a while (until I heard the voice) to cotton onto the fact that the star of the fabulous cabaret-style set Ebony Rose was actually a man and there was a touching duet with Ebony's friend that when interrupted segues into a dramatic stick dance fight, staving off the developers. What struck me about that scene was the way every single member of the cast was drawn into the performance, and that it flowed with such ease, belying the complexity of logistics that must have been taken into consideration.  

There was a tender duet between a mother and son, with the twist that her love is overpowering rather than empowering, and it had me in floods of tears. There was a spectacular violence in the acrobatics representing the tale of domestic abuse, with such ease and dexterity in balletic movement in the way Suzi is ripped from her wheelchair and flung around, that it is hard to believe her legs don't work properly. This is thanks again to the ingenuity of the choreography and strength of her partnership with circus duo Joli Vyann (see below). Four sisters danced with colourful scarves with a grace and joy reminiscent of dancers at a Holi festival, and the masquerade of homophobia that battered Ebony Rose was incredibly powerful. The final tango to Ich Bin ein Berliner, an anthem that celebrates democracy and self-governance was just genius, and the dispatch of Mrs Hatcher gratifyingly dramatic. 

There were other moments I loved too - the Matilda of a girl with her single mother, a regular Mrs Wormwood, the tea lady swigging the cups back, the twilight twinkly elderly Scottish couple, Rosie the painter, gliding and creating works of art, the Amici Arms pub landlord whose wheelchair became a novel set, the Spanish-speaking political refugee, whose family has been disappeared, so topical. 

As you can see residents of 35 Amici Drive have all suffered from discrimination because, in some shape or form they do not "fit the mould", but the support they give each other is movingly beautiful to behold. Fiction and reality blurs, because the love the company has for each other on stage is tangible. Of course "Amici" is a word rooted in friendship.  The thing is, as an able-bodied person who lived as a student in Spain in a L'Arche community with disabled people, I find an emotional honesty and directness there that cuts the crap. Through the frustrations and the laughter, you become as one, with one, and that's what true com-union means. Family. So I was delighted later to meet, among others,  Mr Loki, who is in fact called Francis, like my son. He told me very directly there can only be one Francis and a lively debate ensued.  It all felt very familiar. I'd love them to meet one day. In an after-word later, Wolfgang Stange talked about how the idea came to him when the Lyric, that is home to them, went under refurbishment, and that Amici theatre company is telling its own story through the show, after a fashion, is clear. Congratulations Amici on your 35 years of success, and here's to the future building on solid foundations.

35 Amici Drive has two shows left, tonight 11 and 12 September. 7.30pm at the Lyric. Catch it will you can. 

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chapter 102: Women in Circus

"Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak."
Rosalind,  As You Like It

Last night I was back at the Edinburgh Fringe, watching a show called "Robbed of Sleep" in which half a dozen clowns hijacked a lorry, then turned their guns on the audience, shooting out ribbons, party poppers and festival banners. The oldest trick in the book, and we laughed. It was a dream, obviously, and I don't need my subconscious to warn me that circus is stealing all my time. But right now so much is happening, I must speak.

Oxford was on my radar last week. Keziah Serrau has just taken STRIKE! up to the Oxford Playhouse. Unfamiliar with the work, I had seen Serrau's heart-stopping use of a suspended wooden platform, hanging either horizontally or sliding to vertical depending on the balance of performers, at a presentation at the National Circus for Canvas 2015 (pictured left - for more about Canvas click here) and would love to see this production:

"STRIKE! is directed by rising star Keziah Serreau and devised by highly skilled performers using innovative aerial structures, lively humour and a Kafka-esque setting to blur boundaries between circus and theatre. Expect daredevil stunts with a fiery tale of uprising as the cast of five play office workers, buried (quite literally) under an ever-increasing workload. But when they decide they aren’t going to take it anymore, they bend rules- and their bodies- to escape."   See the Oxford Mail - Curtain Raisers, and the BBC Radio Oxford interview (click here) which is available til 1st October.

I emailed friends in Oxford immediately, only to be told, "actually we are at the Playhouse already on Wednesday, the night before, to see some sort of cross between juggling and ballet". Aha! I thought, Gandini Juggling must be up in town too, with Ephemeral Architectures (Chapter 59 - click here). The friends contacted me later to say how much they had been impressed by the sheer athleticism of the choreography and the beautiful music. So close, but narrowly missing them, I went to Oxford myself on Friday night, with my husband to his alma mater Lady Margaret Hall, for a promenade production of As You Like It* (pictured right) through the college gardens. Set in occupied France, I caught a glimpse of circus in a ring, albeit a wrestling tumble, an onion-juggling Touchstone and some stellar clowning. It's on until 12th September, and well worth the journey. 

While travelling up to Oxford, browsing circus channels, I came across a video of Lyn Gardner in conversation with young critics and bloggers**. Find your niche, she advised them, find something that no-one else is writing about, and name-checked Kate Kavanagh, of The Circus Diaries. It was terrific to hear that recognition for both Kate's work and her platform. Here are two writers at the vangard of circus criticism, one a journalist, the other a blogger, and reviewer for on-line periodicals. To point out that they are women could be taken as a sexist observation. What does gender matter in the job they do? Well, hugely for me. Maybe because seeing the clip was so closely followed by a performance of the gender-bending As You Like It at a college that was formerly all-women, reminding me of my own all-female college in Cambridge (New Hall, now Murray Edwards - see Chapter 43: Cambridge Circus - click here). Both colleges seek to redress an inherent, institutionalised sexism in society, that is still rife. It may not come as a surprise to hear that I came across Sexism in the City: the lads invited to strippers clubs on "bonding" evenings with managers, secret pay grades, partners asking why you don't sleep your way to the top. But I have seen discrimination at work in academia as well, and heard Jude Kelly, director of the Southbank Centre, talk about it in the Arts - read her here marking Women of the World Festival.  And yet, despite being warned of the "jocks and jerks" around, I find the community of circus pretty egalitarian and I wonder if growing out of the margins of society, and still, to a certain extent, on the fringes, accounts for its inclusivity? There is a discussion there, waiting to happen.

And happen it will on 14th October in Bristol. Ausform, in partnership with Circomedia, as part of the Bristol Circus City Festival (see is hosting VOLT: Women in Circus. An evening that begins at 7.30pm, it will host a discussion on women in circus and a double-bill of work in progress performances from Maddie McGowan and Grania Pickard, the descriptions below taken direct from the website: VOLT: Women in Circus (click here)

"He Ain't Heavy from Grania Pickard (see project video below***) depicts an autobiographical narrative using a swinging trapeze and a puppet to give you an insight into Grania's relationship with her autistic brother. After an intensive month of research and development this will be the first showing of this exciting new work at Volt. This process has sparked a burgeoning collaboration with Alexander Hamilton-Ayres who has composed an original soundtrack for the piece. Grania hopes to raise awareness about families caring for a loved one with autism or special needs by sharing her own experiences with you. In his own words, her brother is both a 'rat bag' and 'the best.'

Grandma's Hands from Maddie McGowan: 
“Two people, at the start and at the end of their lives, 
bonded through blood...” 
The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren can be tender, delicate, and funny, its significance changing with time. Through aerial rope, text, movement and recorded conversations, Grandma’s Hands explores themes of biological inheritance, ageing, and what we can learn from each other across generations."

On Twitter at the weekend @Ausform invited suggestions as to whom should be on the panel for the evening. Were they talking circus artists, producers, programmers, promoters, writers, directors? I wondered out loud. A whole flurry of names immediately sprang to mind, and I have only been moving in circus circles for a year. That is incredibly encouraging. Fresh from my first ever 10k run round Kew Gardens (the Richmond Running Fest) with half a dozen girlfriends yesterday, I am in the zone for celebrating women supporting women. I think of the girlfriends who came to a circus experience afternoon at National Circus, and my fabulous friend Anne who signed up, with me, to evening classes there on the back of it (see Chapters 1, 2 and 3 - click here). It's Anne's birthday today, happy days! And I give thanks for the men who support us. So here's to momentum, moving forward and celebrating, circus style.

"Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born." (Anaïs Nin)

*Creation Theatre's As You Like It is on in the gardens of Lady Margaret Hall until 12th September. 

** Lyn Gardner on Blogging and Theatre to Young Critics

***Grania Pickard is looking for support. See this project video for He Ain't Heavy 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Chapter 101: The Edinburgh Fringe and Lessons Learned

Je m'baladais sur l'avenue,                                      
le coeur ouvert a l'inconnu,                                         
j'avais envie de dire bonjour                                      
a n'importe qui...                                                        

I was strolling down the avenue
Heart open to the unknown
I felt like saying hello
to anyone I met ...

 Lyrics Joe Dassin,  Les Champs-Élysées

I was still in my tightwire boots, in the kitchen, when this song came on at random and I soon found myself spinning across the kitchen floor in the arms of my other half. We whirled back to the outskirts of Lyon, to a time before kids. There is a Big Top in a field, a restaurant, with circus acts  happening all around, to which his cousins have brought us for the evening. We dine, we drink, we laugh, and on the way home in the car Joe Dassin comes on the radio. We sing at the top of our voices all the way home. Oh, Champs-Elysees dah dah dee dah dah. Oh Paris. Oh Edinburgh. 

Because the lyrics pretty much sum up my experience there recently, and my modus operandi. Simply happy to wander the streets, open to any and all opportunities. Going to Edinburgh for me was not just about the circus, it was a bit of a personal pilgrimage. My mother is from Edinburgh, I grew up spending childhood holidays up just across the Dean Bridge at my grandparents, and I hadn't been back since they died. Not in the daytime anyway. Edinburgh for me has always been a city of ghosts, bleeding history right down the Royal Mile. Now I was haunted by the fact I had no ties there. The fact that one of my sisters would be going up the following week, and hanging out at the Circus Hub to boot, made me feel another presence that wasn't quite there. But I had ended up staying, by chance, at an old hotel where my great-grandmother, one Margaret Mackenzie, used to be a hostess. Maybe channelling her spirit was why a fellow guest took me for the Maitre D', asking me where to sit breakfast one morning, and was hugely embarrassed realising his mistake. Actually, I was dead chuffed. Nae worries, I replied.

I love the uncanny, and trust in serendipity, "synchronicity" Kate Kavanagh* calls it, or grace, that for me confirms I'm on the right path, so while I knew folk up in Edinburgh, I had no fixed plans beyond booking a few of the shows in advance. I had a few goosebumps at Gatwick Airport, alerted to the presence of a kindred spirit on the brink of an adventure, and it gave a warm glow knowing I wasn't the only one, but this was a plane I had to catch on my own. Flying solo gives a certain vulnerability, you see, that encourages others to open up and open doors. I would never have got into Velvet off the cuff like that, for instance, if I'd had a friend in tow.

The Edinburgh Fringe was heart-breaking in a couple of respects. Performers are on a punishing schedule of several weeks back-to-back shows, and in circus there is an added physical risk that increases exponentially with fatigue, while operating on a very fine, financial tightwire**. Competition is fierce. I saw some notable, stellar performances play to minimal audiences, which was soul-destroying, and there were a couple that would have benefited from a different venue. But I was blown away by the beauty, skill and craft of the performances I saw, and uplifted by the courage, camaraderie and sense of community I found.

I learned a lot about the dynamics of location and space. The Circus Hub, comprising two Epcot-style tents, not so Dismaland*** and a central covered bar space, became a home from home for me. Located in the Meadows, traditionally the site of all things circus, it was a magnet for reunions and easy meets. I loved the shows I saw at The Big Sexy Circus City but the name plastered all over the kids practice zone area felt a bit odd, and not the best way to reel in crowds for the family-friendly matinees like Wings In My Heart. Also, unlike the Meadows, Fountainbridge is not quite the pastoral idyll its name might suggest, and feels a bit out on a limb, but worth the trek as once inside the tent the performers cast their spell. Underbelly at Cowgate, where I saw Pole, felt like every throbbing student union on a Saturday night, while The Famous Spiegeltent hosting Velvet in St Andrew's Square, had all the glamour and starlight as befitted its prime location. The Caves,  where I saw The Book of Love, had intimate echoes of The Vaults in London, while the ecclesiastical feel of the Assembly Checkpoint for Smoke and Mirrors was the perfect setting to bring home both the need for a spiritual connection in an age where "we think too much and feel too little", and the power of the circus to build those human bridges.

The weekend in Edinburgh has been a game-changer in terms of my writing as well. Meeting   journalists up there, inspiring and incisive, I think in another life how much I would have loved to be part of that landscape, and have an institution behind me vouching for my copy. And yet, back to vulnerability, through putting myself out there on social media and in the blog, I have a different, unique reach. In a year it is pushing 30,000 hits from all over the world and making connections that I find staggering. Not a day goes by when I do not question and challenge the wisdom of putting so much personal information on display, but that's what people respond to, and for me it is a show of trust, a prerequisite to establishing a vital connection when engaging with circus. Luceo non uro is the Mackenzie motto. I shine not burn. Well that's ironic. I train, I write, I connect because I burn. The lesson learned from this trip to Edinburgh is simply: Go For It!

le coeur ouvert a l'inconnu

While at the Edinburgh Fringe I saw 12 shows in 48 hours. Click on the show name below to access the corresponding post:

Circus Hub: Ockham's Razor - Cirk La Putyka's Dolls - Bromance - Elephant in the Room - Barbu - The Hogwallops
The Caves: Book of Love
Big Sexy Circus City: Wings In My Heart - Hitch!
Assembly Checkpoint: Smoke and Mirrors
Underbelly: Pole
The Famous Spiegeltent: Velvet

*Kate Kavanagh writes The Circus Diaries and is currently guest blogger for the Greenbelt Festival where she has been soaking up the synchronicity and offering a fresh perspective at

** See Patrick Collinson's article in The Guardian on the broken business models at The Fringe

***Dismaland: Banksy's "Bemusement Park" in Weston-Super-Mare: