Monday, 23 November 2015

Chapter 114: Clowning Around

"Sometimes you just gotta clown around"
Photo: from Twitter @Dylan DreyerNBC in  Macy's Thanksgiving Parade

"So, how's the affair going?!" growls a voice as I creep in well past midnight, flushed. Or flushed out. My pulse is racing, my mind's a whir and my body is wired, in no mood for sleep. You see, I've been clowning around. In Kings Cross, of all places. Where else?!

Our rendez-vous was The Poor School on Pentonville Road. How deliciously Dickensian and ripe for the taking that sounded. The smog of disinfectant in the passageway, a building of bare boards and stroppy directors dragging actors through rehearsals, did not disappoint. I was there for three evenings at a workshop run by Ira Seidenstein, clown par excellence, who has performed with Cirque de Soleil and Slava's Snow Show, and is mentor to a wide range of artists. Why was I there? As we sat down in a circle I was first to be asked. I stammered something about having a disastrous time at the last clowning workshop I went to (See Chapter 42: The School of Hard Knocks) and being a sucker for punishment. That's partially accurate. Then there is my love of old school slapstick. But the bottom line is that I'm a storyteller, with a voice locked in a body, a body I am trying to unlock through circus, studying the mechanics of performance and exploring every avenue.

When a friend had alerted me to the workshop via a Facebook event, the first thing I noticed was that Ira had kind eyes. I would be in safe hands, and that was important for me because in any form of improv you are laying yourself on the line. It's scary stuff - who knows what will come out?! In terms of the group dynamic of participants, there were a couple of familiar faces from the world of circus, and in the main, actors, the majority professional, and a couple of true amateurs, all brought together by co-ordinator, illusionist Christopher Howell. 

We eased into the practice with twists, stretches and a choreography that held all the grace and dynamism of a yoga flow. I enjoyed that, and, in my comfort zone, I could feel the energy switch on. Then, when warmed up, we had to take responsibility for our own movements and add our own voice, a voice that would incorporate the shape and motion of our body. I felt more self-conscious at that point, but as we were all practicing at the same time there was a certain cloak of anonymity and a freedom to play. What interested me was the focus on letting the narrative come out of the body. Make a shape, move it, add a voice and see where it takes you. Essentially a creative exercise.

We then performed exercises in front of each other, as audience. Here were pros in their element, and I sat there enchanted at the magic created, feeling so privileged to witness a performance that would never be repeated again. Until it was my turn to take centre stage. I am grateful, at least, that my look of abject horror provided good value entertainment. Standing up there, whether miming robbing a bank or gleefully cackling with the knowledge of a whispered secret, it was all so poorly executed that Ira didn't even need to give my performance a post-mortem - it was death by MissTake. 

But then came the exercise where you got to don a red nose. That's where the magic's at, right? Wrong! According to Ira, a red nose does not a clown make, no special powers it endows, and that announcement came right before my turn, snatching the carpet from underneath me. Nothing to hide behind. Still, there was a sense of tapping into a ritual as I stood with my back to the audience, gingerly stretching the elastic over my head. And then I turned round. I moved towards the audience, drank in every single face in turn and ..."Lucy, take it off. Now." MissTake Two. I sat back down. I had frozen, my knees were locked and there was no movement to my body. Ira gave me one more turn with the nose and it felt I was beginning to get somewhere this time. For an instant there was a glimmer, then it slipped away again.  I didn't quite get it. But I will.


I learned, you see, that it is not enough to have a body that moves well, you have to know how to use it. Thanks to Ira, I now have an awareness of the power of my hands, and knees!, that I didn't have before. I learned that thinking too much about your audience means you forget yourself, your purpose and your act. Did I learn the secret to clowning? Well, I learned techniques drawn from Ira's unique methodology that encompasses Shakespeare, Pirandello, Slapstick and Stanislavski, to name a few, that make me think I can take on the world now, with a little more practice. Check out (click here) and Ira's YouTube channel (click here). I also learned each of us have our own unique fingerprints, creativity and chemistry in performance which can't be taught, but can be developed. 

There is much work to be done still, not to mention play, and so the affair continues, Lucy Loves Circus after all... cheers!

"I am a real ham. I love an audience. I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one"

Lucille Ball

Monday, 16 November 2015

Chapter 113: Bedtime Stories

Over half-term I took the kids to see Upswing's Bedtime Stories at The Albany in Deptford. Bedtime Stories is the creation of Vicki Amedume, one of the inspirational role models in circus as celebrated in the Women in Circus evening in Bristol (see post on Women in Circus - click here), who in this show has created a cosy, intimate space for children and their carers to curl up and have time out together. I had been waiting to see the full show ever since seeing a moving short extract  at Canvas back in April (mentioned in the post Circus Mum - click here). We made it the nick of time, following a rather nail-biting drive up from my parents in Hampshire, having left them at the last possible moment. Still, within moments of joining friends there, directed to the duvets thanks to the welcome attention of the bunny ushers, all tension slipped away. 

Bedtime Stories is the story of a young girl whose mother is so distracted by work and chores, that her daughter invents an imaginary friend for company - summoning up one, two...Three! Together she and Three play tricks and make up stories, while we see her mother on the phone, always just missing calls from her own mother, and drowning in paperwork that literally snows down. Eventually there is a reconciliation. The mother is drawn back into her daughter's present, and (the need for) Three disappears. The story is beautifully told. Hazel Lam as the daughter conveys vivacity and mischief as she reaches for her dreams through stunning aerial silks sequences on bedsheets that become a bridge to the stars, and has a playful synergy with Nathan Johnston as Three, who is an expressive clown with a grace in movement that endows their friendship with a touching delicacy. 

Once again, the portrayal of the mother by Lewis Barfoot of the stressed-out Mum was so spot on it made me a bit teary, but this time, at least, I had my youngest snuggled on my lap and her elder sister nestling into me. Actually, maybe that made the tears roll even more. Sometimes all we want in life is someone else to recognise that we are doing our best and have some space to take stock of what we have. That was the gift to me. At three years old, I'm not sure what my little one took away other than raucous laughter at the clowning, and open-mouthed enchantment at the illustrations that come to life. For her sister it was the message that children have a greater imagination than their parents, and that adults don't quite understand how real that is. For her, for instance, it was hilarious that the mother didn't realise it wasn't the girl chucking pillows out of the bed, but Three. And when Three disappears, that is a real moment of loss. So last night, when she was distressed at the dark night ahead and the monsters her imagination might conjure up, I reminded her of Three, and introduced her to my own childhood friend Joseph, in his amazing techni-coloured dreamcoat (I had a thing for rainbows), who would help me check for octopuses at the end of the bed. I held her then, and we both drifted off, exhausted, Bedtime Stories working magic on us both, once again.

Note: for further information, videos and the latest news, including plans for 2016 tour reaching out to disadvantaged families, visit Upswing's site: (click here)

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Chater 112: Catalonia - Barcelona's Hidden Gems

It was meant to be my one night off in Barcelona. No school concerts or circus happenings on the cards, just a quiet night in. I spent the whole day relaxing with a good friend, who happened to be over from London and has also lived in Barcelona for a number of years. Swanning around in the hotel's rooftop pool, gazing out across the skyline and daydreaming, we gently floated back to when we were living in Catalonia first time round, and by six o'clock we were pretty horizontal. Then came an invite to a party in a hidden Hoxton, and I really was twenty again. There was a gallery opening down the road from the Arts House cinema on carrer Floridablanca. Plants everywhere, vases like clown faces, produce served from the local "huerta" collective, donuts (coconut with a dulce de leche centre, imagine!) and bins of beer bottles, topped with a house DJ on the first floor. So much fun.

As the party wound down we headed in the general direction of a prohibition-style cocktail bar "La Boadas", which a circus performer in the UK had recommended. But, in the company of a young Chilean designer, ended up in Gypsy Lou, drinking pisco with ginger ale, soaking up the live band and the circus-themed studenty art work for sale on the walls. I felt very much at home there, and found myself merrily chatting away to a gorgeous Swedish surfer on the next door table with an exciting new app in the pipeline. We were reminiscing about hanging out in the beach town of Cullera. It was the one thing we had in common. But his memories were from yesterday, while mine of Jorge and his crew were yesteryear, some twenty years BC (Before Circus), and I suddenly realised it was way past the bedtime of this old clown. 

Mohamed Bandie
But, bowing out, Barcelona wouldn't let me go without one last curtain call. On the last morning, I woke up to go and listen to my son's school choir sing at a Mass in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia. My Sunday Best comprised an outfit last worn at the Edinburgh Fringe. A cream lace dress teamed with my brown velvet circus ringmaster's jacket, with brass buttons. Maybe that's what gave me the confidence to volunteer to read the bidding prayers, in Spanish, at the service, much to the surprise of the rest of the congregation. Afterwards, relaxing over some farewell tapas with some of the other parents, in a square just off the Ramblas, I noticed a guy with a Cyr wheel strolling along. It turns out Mohammed, who has been learning Cyr wheel for four years, was looking for space to perform. A random art fair, stalls everywhere, had made it impossible that day, but there is a wonderful video of his that takes you on a ramble through Barcelona. I watch it now, and am transported once again. Life is like a circus, with performers of all variety round every corner, ready to surprise and delight you when you least expect it.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Chapter 111: Catalonia - Circus Cabaret at Cronopis

Florinda on Cyr Wheel
On the outskirts of Barcelona, a good 40 minutes on a local train, Mataró is Catalonia's Croydon, home to an alternative circus space, Cronopis, where a collective of circus artists work together to develop and promote the circus arts. For over a year now the circus space has been relocated to a warehouse about a ten minute walk from the station and it's not an easy place to find. Not in the dark, anyway. Luckily the fates were kind - a good friend, who has been on many a circus adventure with me, happened to be out in Barcelona and came along for the ride. This made the search a very relaxed one - a problem shared, is a problem halved after all. 

Even accounting for Spanish time and late starts, we still missed first an act or tow by the time we got there, including Gaston Villamil on Chinese pole, which I'd have liked to see, but being in full swing, the atmosphere was terrific. The warehouse itself reminded me of The Fire School building, a hub of creative energy, tailor's dummies competing for space with trapeze bars. While La Central Del Circ had very much an international feel, where a variety of nationalities are brought together using Spanish as the common denominator, here at Cronopis there was very much a sense of Catalan identity. It took me back to the last time I was in Barcelona, at the start of trip to Cuba with the Catalan Communist Party. Maybe the leftie politics inherent in circus account for the doppelgänger sensation, but these guys were still in their twenties, while time has marched on for me. 

Compañia Fills de Fusta
The evening was organised by Ariadna Juncosa in aid of the Noelia Foundation, which supports children who have congenital muscular distrophy, and had been several months in the planning. There was a personal connection there through a friend, and that's what I love about a circus community that uses its skills in solidarity with others. So much hard work, planning and thought had gone into the evening, and it was all wrapped up in a particularly lyrical fashion.  Ari, whose main discipline is tightwire, introduced acts with Catalan poems, while acts were choreographed to the music from a superb live band. The first act I saw was an accomplished Cyr wheel routine in vintage dress that was a contrast to the modern vibe I'm used to from Alula Cyr girls. There was a certain other-worldly oneirism to her motion. Next up were Thomas and Vicente, Compañia Fills de Fusta, with a puppet on a string routine where a fabulous "Negra" cabaret singer, accompanied by an accordion player, was singing a cheeky song, about various loves, Pepe, Tito and the like. Was she Celia Cruz, or some great Argentina tango diva? To me, the marionette conjured up Candita Batista,  "la vedette negra de Cuba", who I met in Camaguey when well into her 80s, full of stories about her time in Paris, crossing paths with Jospehine Baker and the like. What a star. The actions of the puppet were brilliant, the sultry turns, the winks, the vivacity all captured, and I was enchanted. 

A love triangle via a lively acro routine combined with steel-tipped shoes had my toes tapping next, and made me think of Juggling on Tap that I had seen pitching at Jacksons Lane for as part of the Canvas marketplace. Then came a duet between a brilliant female pianist and a trapeze artist. The male artist used the trapeze in a way I've not seen used before, like a tightwire. He bounded onto it from the ground with an ease and deftness of balance that had me transfixed from the word go, playing with shapes, and on occasion using the piano as his playground as well.

Uri on trapeze
I found my thoughts turn to Alula Cyr again and the combination of circus skills and singing in Lil Rice, as a female acrobat belted out a powerful rendition of Portishead's "Give Me A Reason To Love You"*. As she sang, her body of a temptress, a nude dress, was peeled away by her partner to reveal a sky blue leotard, and then like a lark she skimmed through the air, executing an exquisite Korean cradle, to return to base every so often and carry on the song. Finally we returned to La Negrita, who once again endowed the ambience with old school cabaret. 

There wasn't a programme, and we had to run by the end to catch the last train back to Barcelona, so I was unable to catch the names of the artists, but that in some ways reinforces the spirit and solidarity of the whole collective. As we left, we were invited to take a rolled up poem for a basket, and I saved mine until I got back home to the UK. 

"Excuse me for asking pears from you, I didn't know you were an elm." The poem reads. Now, in the middle of the most extraordinary improv and clown workshop led by maestro Ira Seidenstein, mentally reciting those lines cuts me some slack, and makes me smile each time I feel out of my depth. Who knows what sort of fruit it will bear?!

For more information, and professional photos from the circus cabaret evening, check out: "Cronopis Espai de Circ" on Facebook. The website is: (click here)
Check out Ariadna Juncosa's website at: (click here)

Amanda & Jorge from Vol de-Ment on Korean cradle

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Chapter 110: Catalonia - La Central Del Circ

Barcelona. Where to begin? I went there last week, following my son's school chamber choir from cathedral to cathedral, celestial voices ringing out in heavenly locations. As this was a school trip, parents were welcome to the concerts but very much encouraged to keep their distance at all other times, so I was essentially a free agent  - all the more so given the rest of the family was back in London.

On the plane on the way over I found myself listening to Gregory Porter's album "Liquid Spirit" and daydreaming. It took me back to the summer term of static trapeze at the National Circus, where I had nailed the needle - effectively a handstand in the ropes - while his music played in the background. Now I wonder if that was really me, for between family commitments and sick bugs I haven't made a single class so far this term, and I miss it. Badly. And in the wake of the previous post, Porter's song "Grandma's Hands" takes on a whole new resonance. Time at the moment feels like it is slipping away, and this then, was going to be a week to slow right down and take stock.

Barcelona, never a drag
Barcelona, though, had other ideas. To be fair, I did manage to write one post (See "He Ain't Heavy" click here). Sitting with a cappucino on the rooftop of my hotel, spires and tiled azure domes close to hand, Montjuic and the sea further out in the distance, I thought the sky really was the limit. Then I took a deep breath and descended in the hurly-burly of the Ramblas. Tourists and tat competing for space with my beloved living statues. I did have one mission this holiday. At the bottom of the main Rambla there is a sign pointing to a Waxwork Museum down a dead end alley. It looks as tacky as hell. Follow it, and round the corner to the right is a café, El Bosc de los Fades (Fairies' Wood). A bliss of kitsch - plastic trees with faces like Ents, low tables and chairs, a little fountain with a mermaid, and in the space next door the stage is set with a Victoriana celebration of the Illusionist and his levitating assistant. Circus everywhere. I ordered a carajillo de ponche - an espresso with a shot of fruit liqueur - for old time's sake, and savoured the memories. The bar now has a shop next to it. Lots of Scandi design goods; camera lens coffee cups, tin mechanical circus objects, and eco-themed story books for kids. I gravitated to a necklace that looked rather like an elegant henna tattoo when held against the skin. My circus talisman, I thought. Walking back up La Rambla, a stubbled Marilyn Monroe, in her trademark white dress, busty and gusty, blew kisses from the balcony of the Erotica Museum.

That evening I opened an email from a friend who had sent me a link to La Central Del Circ, Barcelona's circus space. That was the gentle nudge I needed to check it out. Set in a desert of asphalt bordered by the sea, there is an oasis of spectacular architecture, my favourite being the Museu Blau, pictured. Just beyond is an urban playground, and a couple of circus tents, originally home to the Central. Inside the current building, the vibe was similar to the National Circus and I was welcome to wander round. I made my way down to the training space and found myself chatting to some Argentine acrobats who told me about a circus cabaret happening the following evening at Cronopis, an alternative circus space.

As I was turning to leave, Miriam, who had greeted me on the front desk, invited me to look in at some female tightwire artists, training together at the moment. I thought of Dizzy O'Dare back in the UK, who I had last seen at Canvas, and what are the odds, Paula Quintas (left) was one of them! Giving me the warmest welcome, Paula told the others all about my blog, how I explain to people who don't do circus what it's like learning from scratch, and how that leads to a greater appreciation of the work that professionals do. I was beyond touched to be vouched for like that. Paula, with Irene de Paz and Mariona Moya (right) weren't working on a show together as far as I could gather, just exploring shapes, swapping techniques and dancing along the wire to eclectic Spanish and Latin tunes. It was a gift to watch in such an intimate space, with just Miriam and Irene from the office, for company. Afterwards, in such a daydream, I missed my lift to Tarragona and got pick-pocketed to boot. Luckily a taxi driver gave me a lift to a train station, and a ticket in another purse, meant I made it to the church on time. And the concert.

Listening to the school chamber orchestra raise the roof with Piazzolla's "Fuga y misterio" in Tarragona Cathedral, my mind flitted back to the tightrope tango earlier, and attempts back home on a slackline the week before. Life is a delicate balancing act, I reflected, a series of constant, tiny adjustments, and those moments when it comes into tune make all the hard graft worthwhile.